Men’s ice hockey (15-9-2, 12-5-2 in the NESCAC) fell 4-1 to second-seeded Middlebury (14-4-1, 19-7-1) in the NESCAC tournament semifinals at Amherst on Friday. The Ephs tied the game up at 1-1 in the second period after launching a strong offensive, but the Panthers claimed the game with three consecutive goals in the third. The semifinal marked the end of the season; the Ephs rank third in the NESCAC conference, improving on last year’s 7-8-4, 9-11-4 record.
The team arrived at Amherst on Friday mentally and physically prepared to play in its first NESCAC semifinal game since 2000. Although Middlebury ranked second to Amherst in this year’s standings, the Panthers had won 10 of their previous 14 games since tying the Ephs 4-4 in early January and have reached the NESCAC tournament finals for the past 10 years. However, Williams showed resilience and strong play against Bowdoin the week before and was determined to take Middlebury down.
The first period saw much rapid play between the opponents. The Panthers dominated the offense in the first several minutes, constantly driving the puck down the rink to the Ephs’ side. The Williams defensive line held strong until Middlebury got its first power play opportunity 8:34 into the game. The Panthers immediately seized their chance, launching a rapid assault on the Ephs’ net and scoring a goal at 9:37. Near the end of the period, the Panthers initiated another attack on net, but goalie Ryan Purdy ’12 made a glove save that prevented the one-goal deficit from increasing. The period ended 1-0 in Middlebury’s favor.
In the second period, the men tried to reclaim the offensive, seizing the puck during face-off and dumping it deep into the Middlebury zone. However, the Panthers stunted the Ephs’ momentum with their aggressive forechecking to shift the game back onto the Williams side of the rink. But in a battle in front of the Middlebury net, a pass from Ryan Young ’11 and a fantastic set-up by Brett Haraguchi ’09 allowed Andrew Lepore ’10 to score the Ephs’ first goal 3:17 into the period.
Williams continued to rally, putting tight pressure on the Middlebury goal while Purdy and the defensemen forced the puck away from the net. In the midst of brisk back-and-forth play, the Ephs committed a penalty and gave the Panthers a two-minute power play. Nevertheless, the team’s strong defense shined, and Middlebury was unable to score despite numerous attempts. Purdy made several fantastic saves, at one point deflecting two consecutive shots from rebound action.
The Middlebury captain then committed a hooking penalty and Williams gained a power play opportunity. The team continued to pressure the net, and at one point four Ephs surrounded a fallen Panther to fight for the puck. Out of desperation, the fallen player committed a delayed game penalty by covering the puck with his hands, and the Ephs gained another power play. Although the men fired at the net over and over and remained in the Middlebury zone for over a minute, all the shots were blocked, deflected or fired wide. The Panthers managed to kill off the two penalties and the battle for the puck returned to the center of the rink. After a line-switch and a face-off with 27 seconds left, the game remained knotted at one apiece.
Middlebury broke open the game in the third period. The Panthers first scored two goals at 5:41 and 13:01 into the period. Over the course of the period, Middlebury made 17 shots on goal to Williams’ nine, and even though the Eph defense made tremendous strides limiting the goals scored, the Panthers never stopped attacking.
At this point, the moment of truth arrived: Williams earned a power play opportunity with only 1:50 remaining in the game. The team called a time-out to plan their final play of the season. Down by two points with less than two minutes remaining, the team made a tough decision – to go all out by pulling Purdy out of the goal to gain an extra man on the ice.
In a series of coordinated but fruitless attacks, Williams assaulted the Middlebury goal, with Haraguchi, Connor Olvany ’11 and Young leading the offensive. But the Ephs played with an empty net, and in between the relentless plays, the Panthers caught a loose puck and sent it flying towards the Ephs’ net. With the defense lined up close to the Panthers’ side, the Ephs watched helplessly as the puck slipped into the net with 53 seconds left. The unassisted goal gave the Panthers an insurmountable three-point lead. Williams continued attacking until the very last second, but the time constraint ended the game 4-1 for Middlebury.
The team mounted a strong offensive effort throughout the semifinal, placing intense pressure on Middlebury especially in the second period. The game also marked the end of the collegiate ice hockey careers of Matt Draheim ’09, co-captain Christopher Fahey ’09, Rick Redmond ’09, David Ramsay ’09 and Haraguchi. Despite an up-and-down season that included injuries, the team relied on determination and talent to finish its season on a stronger note than last year.