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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Panther Hockey Bites Cadets, Retains Status as Nation's Best

Author: Peter Yordan

Bill Beaney's 300th win as head coach of the Middlebury men's hockey team couldn't have been any sweeter as the team exorcized its lone demon with a convincing 3-1 victory over Norwich College Tuesday night. The team, which suffered its only loss of the season to Norwich in November, now can look ahead to post-season play with renewed confidence. The game had been highlighted on the schedule from the beginning of the season, and it turned out to be the biggest game of the season for both teams: Middlebury ranked first in the nation, Norwich ranked second. The fact that the game was broadcast live on the New England Sports Network further enhanced the already charged atmosphere.

Middlebury entered Tuesday night's contest riding upon the crest of a 10 game winning streak and an 18 game unbeaten streak that dated back to the first game against Norwich. The Panthers' overall record of 20-1-1 had secured them first place in New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) as well as the top spot in the national coaches' poll. Its lone scab on an otherwise sparkling season was an embarrassing 5-1 loss at the hands of the Cadets on Nov. 24.

Middlebury came out determined to avenge its defeat and erase any doubt regarding its status as the nation's top team. The game started slowly, with both sides playing cautiously, trying to find their rhythm in the early going. But it was the Panthers who drew first blood, striking with two minutes remaining in the period. Senior Matt Dunn, showing signs of having a big game with every touch of the puck, skated into the Norwich zone and cut across the slot drawing two defenders with him before threading a magical pass in front of the goal to hard charging Kevin Cooper '04, who flicked the puck past the Norwich goaltender to give Middlebury a vital 1-0 lead. A Norwich defenseman's giveaway with only seconds left on the clock almost gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead, but the resulting shot clanged off the crossbar and spared the Cadets from a devastating mistake heading into the first intermission.

Dunn's hot hands stayed with him over the intermission, and the goal-scoring defenseman gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead three minutes into the second period on an excellent individual effort as he caught the Norwich defense off-guard, skating slightly in from the blue line and rifling a shot past the Norwich netminder and into the back of the net. After that, however, Middlebury caught another case of the second period flu that has been pestering it over the past few weeks. Norwich started to assert its game in the Panthers zone, dictating the pace of play on the ice. The Cadets took advantage of a Middlebury penalty to score a power play goal seven minutes into the period, and nearly scored again a few shifts later only to have the goal overruled when it was ruled that the goal post had come off its moorings prior to the puck entering the net. The Panthers held on, however, and maintained a 2-1 lead going into the second intermission.

The game remained uneasily close in the third period until Dunn scored one of the most spectacular goals of the season to put the game out of reach. Breaking out of his own zone, Dunn chased up the back of a Cadet defender before deftly pulling the puck around him with a devastating move and breaking in on the Norwich goal. Holding off a second defender, he decked out the goalie and slid the puck into the empty side of the net to score his second goal of the night. The rest of the team took its cue from Dunn and proceeded to clamp down on the Norwich attack, pinning the puck deep in their own zone and piling on the shots for the remainder of the game.

"The two Norwich games were night and day," said Beaney of his milestone victory. "We played with poise and a real sense of team. We've got a real sense of confidence now." The team now looks forward to its final game of the season on Friday night against St. Michael's before turning their attention to the upcoming NESCAC tournament. A strong Panther showing over the next several weeks will put Beaney on his way toward win number 400, and hopefully a sixth national championship.