Resurgent Panther men’s hockey stands at 7-3

MIDDLEBURY FORWARD OWEN Powers watches as a shot from Antoine Belisle beats the Manhattanville goalie for the fourth goal in Saturday’s 5-2 win in Kenyon Arena. The Panthers, seeking their first winning season in several years, improved to 7-3. They will host Wesleyan and Trinity this weekend.

MIDDLEBURY — In their annual holiday tournament, the Middlebury College men’s hockey team suffered a disappointing, 4-3 overtime loss to St. Michael’s this past Friday. But the Panthers bounced back to defeat Manhattanville, 5-2, in Saturday’s consolation game.
Saturday’s effort has been more typical of the season for the Panthers, who stand at 7-3 as they enter a challenging four-game stretch.
This weekend the Middlebury men, tied for second in NESCAC play at 5-1, host two tough league teams, fourth-place Wesleyan on Friday at 7 p.m. and first-place Trinity on Saturday at 4 p.m.
But after five straight losing seasons there is evidence to suggest these Panthers can meet that challenge. Their seven wins include a victory over then No. 1 Norwich, and one loss came to current No. 1 Wisconsin-Eau Claire by a single goal.
Panther Captain Owen Powers on Saturday said the team now expects to defeat other good teams — starting this coming weekend.
“I think it’s going to be a statement weekend for us,” Powers said. “It’s really important to us to send a message to the league that we should be at the top of the league.”
Powers and Coach Neil Sinclair said the Panthers are building on the progress the team made this past winter, when the program doubled its win total to eight from the season before and established a culture of hard work.
Sinclair said the leadership of senior captains Kamil Tkaczuk and Jimmy McKee last year and Powers and the team’s other seniors this year is now really paying off.
“It’s something that’s been building for the last three, four years. We’ve got really good leadership. We’ve been working on it, and our seniors have been phenomenal. All our captains have been terrific,” he said.
Powers offered details on what he and Sinclair meant about the past year’s captains. 
“They definitely left a legacy of doing all the right things off the ice, in the weight room, taking care of your body. And I think the more you take care of those little things, they slowly become the big things, and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” he said.
He added, “When you have new guys come in and all those things are already in place, and that’s the only thing that they know, that we put out a bunch of effort on the ice and off the ice, then it becomes the norm, and everybody’s used to it, and you just generate a better program environment.”

That doesn’t mean there are no hiccups.
The Panthers started quickly against St. Michael’s (7-4-1 after falling to Babson in the tourney final) on Friday, but managed only one first-period goal, a Mitchell Allen redirection of a Matt Danner pass, despite a 13-2 edge in shots.
St. Mike’s then outshot the Panthers, 14-5, in the second period and tied the game at 2-2. The Purple Knights made it 1-1 on a power play at 4:16, when Noah Muller’s shot found its way through traffic past goalie Brian Ketchabaw, who then left with an injury. On Saturday Ketchabaw’s status for upcoming games was uncertain; he has played the majority of time in net this season.
St. Mike’s took the lead four minutes later, when Ethan Hendrickson poked in his own rebound. Middlebury made it 2-2 at 11:21, when Billy Dobensky ripped a one-timer from the left point on a setup from Brett Dineen.
In the third, Muller made it 3-2 with a wrist shot from the inside edge of the right circle. Panther defenseman Brendan Dawson drilled a shot from the left circle to tie the game, with Powers assisting. Overtime was brief: Matt Schreiner poked home the rebound of Jeremy Routh’s backhander from the high slot in the second minute.
Ketchabaw made five saves in 24:17, while Adam Wisco made 20 saves in the final 36:51. Tim Decker made 26 stops for St. Mike’s. 

On Saturday vs. Manhattanville (5-8-1), Panther freshman goalie Jake Horoho made 27 saves in his debut. Sinclair said Horoho could see more time. 
“He made key saves at critical moments. He tracked the puck well. And he competes, he competes every day in practice. And that’s what you ask for in a goalie,” Sinclair said. 
Middlebury took the lead 6:37 into the first period. Dawson banked a dump-in off the backboards to hustling forward Emack Bentley in the left circle. He fired a shot on Valiant goalie Reid Robertson (30 saves), and Michael Fahie one-timed the rebound into the far side. Manhattanville made it 1-1 later in the period, when Alex Rowella tucked home a pass from Glynn Robitaille.
Powers gave Middlebury the lead at 14:44 of the second period on a power play; he tipped home a Dawson shot from the left point. Four minutes later freshman Paddy Bogart, deep in the left corner, whipped a pass to Bentley steaming toward the far post. Bentley one-timed it high into the net for the goal of the game.
At 9:11 of the third, Valiant Josh Fletcher tipped home a Ken McLean shot. The Panthers answered at 12:27. Freshman Antoine Belisle carried into the Valiant end on the three-on-one, and his shot from the inside of the right circle found the upper right corner. Freshman Tyler Little added an empty-netter to make it 5-2.
The Panthers felt like they played a more complete game vs. Manhattanville.
“We wanted a little more of a 60-minute effort. We were trying to keep our team shape, and keep the energy of the team as a whole just a little bit higher,” Powers said. “I think those two things were crucial for us today.”
Sinclair believes the momentum generated over the past two seasons will be sustained.
“It’s infectious. People are excited about it, and we’ve had some big wins,” he said. “But I also think it’s the enthusiasm of our current players when people come to campus to visit. It feeds on itself. They’re a fun group to be around, and a fun group to coach, and we have a blast every day in practice.”

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