Panther women settle for third in NCAA Frozen Four

MIDDLEBURY — At Kenyon Arena on Saturday, the Middlebury College women’s hockey team ended its season on Saturday with a dramatic overtime victory in the NCAA Division III Frozen Four.
But it wasn’t the marquee evening game the Panthers wanted: With 12.1 seconds left in overtime in the afternoon’s consolation game, Middlebury defeated the University of Wisconsin-Rivers Falls, 3-2, when freshman Grace Waters tipped in sophomore Heidi Woodworth’s shot from the point.
In a Friday semifinal, Amherst advanced to Saturday evening’s final vs. Elmira by edging the Panthers, 3-2. In the championship, the 24-5 Jeffs earned a 4-3 overtime victory over Elmira (23-5-1), which blanked the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (20-7-3), 3-0, in Friday’s other semi.
After the 20-4-4 Panthers defeated UWRF in overtime on Saturday, senior captain Randi Dumont, a defender and a first-team all-NESCAC pick, and Coach Bill Mandigo could look on the bright side.
Dumont said it was difficult to accept Friday’s hard-fought loss to Amherst, but that she was happy to wake up and realize she could play another game with her friends.
“Losing yesterday’s game was obviously disappointing. But I think we played an awesome game. We gave them a hard game,” Dumont said. “But as far as moving into today’s game, one outlook we had was we get to play one more game. It’s tough to just walk away from a loss, and I’m glad that the end of my career was on a win.”
Mandigo looked at it from the perspective that Dumont and fellow seniors Molly Vitt, Erika Nakamura and Annmarie Cellino, a former NESCAC rookie and player of the year, could cap their careers with another good result. They won an NCAA championship as a freshman and played in the NCAA tournament all four years, and captured the NESCAC title on Amherst’s ice two weeks ago, among other accomplishments.
“It was a good way for our seniors to finish their careers … The four of them have played in three final fours. They’ve got a first place, a second place and a third place. That’s a pretty good career for … four quality young women,” Mandigo said. 
In Saturday’s game vs. UWRF, the Panthers outshot the Falcons by 15-6 in the first period, but settled for a 1-1 tie. Panther goalie Lani Wright (22 saves) was busy early, stopping a close-range backhander on an early UWRF power play, and UWRF goalie Melissa Deardorff (25 saves) delighted her team’s vocal and colorful fans by stopping Heather McCormack’s shorthanded bid midway through.
The Falcons scored a power play goal at 10:33, when Abby Sunderman poked the puck home from a knot of a half-dozen bodies in front of Wright.
The Panthers equalized on a power play at 15:45. Vitt fed McCormick in the right-wing circle, and McCormick sent the puck through the crease to Julia Ireland for a tip-in.
Deardorff then stopped close-range bids by Maggie Melberg, Ireland, Anna McNally and Waters as the period wound down.
In the second period the Panthers suddenly found it difficult to clear their zone and link up cleanly at center ice, and the Falcons gained confidence. They outshot the Panthers in the second period, 8-6, and in the third, 8-3.
Mandigo praised UWRF, and said the Panthers may not have been at their best.
“They came out ready to play, and I’m not quite sure we were ready to play.” he said.
Wright became a factor as the game wore on, although she surrendered a power-play goal at 8:01 of the second period, a deflected 30-footer by Heather Horgen.
In the second period, Wright stopped Ally Foley’s partial breakaway, blocked Bailey Likstrom’s 10-footer from the left side, and denied breakaways by Katie Flanagan and Emma Nordness.
“I thought Lani Wright was excellent,” Mandigo said. 
The Panthers scored the game’s fourth power-play goal at 6:01 of the third period on a pretty play. McCormick started with the puck on the left side and fed Cellino at the center point, Cellino slid it to Vitt at the bottom of the right-wing circle, and Vitt picked the upper right corner.
Midway through the five-minute OT the Panthers took charge. In the final seconds Marjie Billings won a puck on the right wing and fed Woodworth just inside the blue line at center ice. Woodworth fired into a knot of skaters in the slot, and Waters tipped her low drive into the lower right corner, triggering one final celebration for the Panthers.
On Friday, the bounces didn’t all go the Panthers’ way, although Amherst’s fine end-to-end defense may have influenced their luck. The Panthers had lost to Amherst in the regular season, 3-0 and 5-0, before earning an NCAA berth with a 4-3 overtime upset at Amherst in the NESCAC playoff final two weeks before.
All five goals in Friday’s semifinal were scored on the power play. Two came in the first period and made it 2-0, Jeffs, after one.
The first, by speedy Tarasai Karega, came at 5:20. Karega jumped off the bench and skated into the zone at full speed, took a perfect pass from Lindsey Harrington and went in alone on Panther goalie Alexi Bloom and beat her with a move to the backhand.
The Panthers then looked like they were ready to take the game over, with good puck movement and jump to their legs. Ireland. Nora Bergman, Ashley Bairos (twice) and Cellino had bids.
But their second penalty proved costly when Julia Koch’s soft, screened shot from the left-wing circle found its way past Bloom into the far corner at 17:00. The Panthers said Bloom (15 saves) had no chance.
Mandigo could only shrug his shoulders about the misfortune.
“Sometimes it’s a bad bounce. Sometimes it’s we’re over-extending. Sometimes we’re out of position,” he said. “The second goal wasn’t a particularly hard shot. Lexi never saw it.”
The Panthers finally solved Elek at 4:00 of the second period. Bairos sent Waters into the right-wing circle, and her hard shot bounced off Elek to Vitt at the far post, where Vitt stuffed it home.
Middlebury outshot the Jeffs, 8-6, in the period, with Bergman, Vitt and Nakamura having chances. But Amherst added the only goal: Karega whipped a backhand from the left-wing circle, and the rebound bounced to the charging Megan Curry for the score at 13:35.
In the third, the Panthers had two power plays. Elek stopped Nakamura on a Bairos setup and then denied Melberg from close range on the first. In the second, Cellino broke into the high slot and took McCormack’s feed from the right-wing corner and buried the puck inside the far post at 13:00.
But even with Bloom on the bench in the late going, the Panthers could not equalize.
The Panthers said they believed they could rally, but were still happy with their effort.
“We thought we could come back,” Cellino said. “We were short one goal, but we played one heck of a game, so I’m proud of everyone in that room.”
Vitt noted that there were points this winter, probably referring to the 5-0 loss at Amherst, when it didn’t appear the Panthers would have a shot at hosting the Frozen Four, and she echoed Cellino.
“I’m definitely proud of the team for coming this far,” Vitt said. “There were times in the season I didn’t know if we were going to make it, and we did, so I’m really happy.”
Elek also praised the Panthers.
“It’s a healthy rivalry. It’s not dirty or nasty,” Elek said. “We respect each other as players and as programs.”
And Dumont said on Saturday the Panthers will be able to carry away good memories with them from the weekend.
“It was definitely great to end on a win,” she said. “One of my teammates looked at me and said, ‘We took it to overtime, and we just wanted as much time with you guys as we possibly could have.’ So you can’t get better than that.” 

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