Middlebury advanced to the NESCAC semifinals for the 13th time in 14 years as they held on for a 4-3 upset win at Amherst. The fifth-seeded Panthers (13-10-2) received a pair of third period goals from Louis Belisle on its way to the victory over fourth-seeded Amherst (15-7-3) at Orr Rink. With the win, Middlebury will visit top-seeded Bowdoin for the conference semifinals on Saturday, March 2 after the Polar Bears needed their own dramatic comeback to beat eighth-seeded Hamilton, 5-3. No. 2 Williams and No. 3 Trinity will meet in the other semifinal after notching tense one-goal wins over Colby and Wesleyan, respectively.
Andrew Kurlandski scored twice for Amherst, his second bringing the Lord Jeffs within a goal with 1:18 remaining in the contest. Just 89 seconds earlier, Kevin Ryder had cut a 4-1 Panther lead to two, but Belisle’s winner with 4:38 to play in the game proved the difference as Amherst came up just short in its stirring comeback bid.
Robbie Donahoe and Robbie Dobrowski each tallied a goal and an assist for the Panthers, their respective second-period strikes giving Middlebury a 2-1 lead after Kurlandski had opened the scoring late in the first. Matt Silcoff chipped in a pair of assists for the visitors while goalie Mike Peters made 26 saves in net, including 11 stops in the second as the sophomore allowed the Panthers to overcome a 29-23 Amherst shot advantage.
After even play throughout much of the first period and missed power-play chances for each side, Amherst jumped in front with just under four minutes to go in the frame. Mike Rowbotham dished from the left corner to Brian Safstrom, who wrapped around the back of the net but saw his backhand attempt deflected by Peters. The rebound flew straight to Kurlandski at the left post, however, for the close-range finish and a 1-0 Jeff lead.
Six minutes into the second, Middlebury went on the attack after matching penalties left four skaters each way. Amherst netminder Nathan Corey saved a breakaway chance from Silcoff but a second Amherst penalty put the Panthers up four-on-three and this time the visitors finished, as Donahoe collected a pass in the right circle and beat Corey over his right shoulder with a strong wrist shot. Silcoff and Ronald Fishman earned assists on the power-play strike as Middlebury converted its second of only two total man-up chances on the afternoon.
With the score knotted, Peters made a pair of big saves near the midpoint of the second to preserve the tie, stopping open point-blank looks from Mike Moher and Safstrom. His efforts were rewarded several minutes later when Dobrowski picked off an errant Jeff pass on the right side and took it to the slot for a hard wrist shot into the top left netting, giving the Panthers a 2-1 lead at the 13:24 mark of the frame. Amherst had a pair of chances to equalize on the power play late in the period, but two more big saves from Peters kept the guests up one heading into the third.
Middlebury padded its lead early in the final period when Belisle took a feed from Evan Neugold in the back and carried the puck through the right side of the Amherst zone for an uncontested wrist shot into the top left corner.
Leading 3-1, the Panthers fended off numerous Jeff attacks for the bulk of the period, killing an Amherst power play before Belisle netted the eventual winner with just 4:38 to play. The Jeffs seemed to have a late Panther push stopped, but a turnover on the goal-line gave Belisle an unexpected look from the left circle and he surprised Corey with a low five-hole shot to make it 4-1. Dobrowski and Silcoff earned assists on the play.
Amherst would not bow down despite the three-goal deficit as the Jeffs delivered a thrilling ending with a pair of goals in a 90-second span. Desperate to cut into the Panther lead, Ryder took a pass from Johnny Van Siclen and carried up to the right circle, beating Peters with a hard wrist shot to the left post to make it 4-2 with nearly three minutes still remaining. Conor Brown and Van Siclen earned assists.
Pulling Corey with 1:32 to play, Amherst stayed on the attack and Kurlandski netted his second of the game as a scrum in front of the Panther net saw the puck slip to the Amherst junior at the right post for the close-range finish, assisted by Moher and James Hawkrigg. With 1:18 still on the clock, the Jeffs kept pushing but could not put another shot on target as the Panther defense held in crunch time.
Corey finished with 19 saves for Amherst. The Jeffs were hurt by a 0-4 showing on the power play as their season ends at 15-7-3.