Panthers’ hard work pays off in NCAA berth

MIDDLEBURY — Sunday’s 4-3 win over visiting No. 2 Amherst in the NESCAC final gave the Middlebury College women’s hockey teams two things the Panthers coveted — a sixth league playoff title, and the chance to win the program’s sixth NCAA Division III crown.
The NESCAC crown meant a bid to the D-III tournament. On Saturday at 7 p.m. the 21-4-1 Panthers will host Manhattanville (19-7-2). The following weekend, the winner of that game will face either Rochester Institute of Technology (24-1-2) or Adrian (19-7-3), who will play this weekend. The final four site will be announced early next week; if RIT wins, it may have the inside track.
Norwich (23-4-1) received a bye for travel reasons, and will meet the winner of this weekend’s contest between Wisconsin-River Falls (24-1-4) and Gustavus Adolphus (23-3-3).
Because of upsets elsewhere in league tournaments and the limited at-large bids available, the Panthers knew before they met Amherst they had to win or they would miss the NCAA tourney for a second straight season. But senior captain Anna McNally said they didn’t need extra motivation against the Jeffs, their biggest NESCAC rival.
“Amherst is always a big game, and we wanted to play them. We wanted to eat purple for dinner,” McNally said. 
The Panthers took advantage of a first-period power play to break on top. Madeline Joyce knocked a rebound past Jeff goalie Caroline Hu (20 saves) at 4:27, with assists going to Nora Bergman and Heather Marrison.
The Panthers earned a slight first-period edge in play and shots (9-7), although Panther goalie Alexi Bloom (22 saves) had to make a couple tough stops on a Jeff power play.
The Panthers had chances early in the second. Hu stopped Heidi Woodworth’s deflected drive from the point at 3:20. At 3:34, a shot almost trickled through Hu and over the line, and a defender was called for a delay of game in preventing the goal, a penalty shot infraction. But Hu stood tall when shooter Maggie Melberg went to the backhand and tried to lift it over her.
Amherst knotted the score at 9:01 on a power play. Ellen Swiontkowski one-timed home Geneva Lloyd’s feed from the left side.
The Jeffs seemed to have momentum, but that changed at 13:58. Melberg fed Marrison at the left point, and her hard slapper found the lower right corner to restore the Panther lead.
At 15:44, Sara Ugalde picked off a pass just outside the Amherst zone, skated around a defender into the right-wing circle, and whipped the puck into the upper left corner to make it 3-1.
At 0:58, the Panthers struck again. Maggie Woodward sent Joyce into the corner and cut to the net. Woodward ran into traffic and spun to the ice while Joyce skated along the right-wing backboards. Joyce sent the puck to Woodward anyway, and that decision was rewarded when Woodward got up on her knees and one-timed a backhand inside the left post.
McNally said the Panthers feed on emotion, and did so in that three-goal outburst.
“We do a great job picking each other up, and it takes something small, and our bench comes alive and we bring each other up,” she said.
The Panthers controlled the first half of the third period. But at 11:38, Stephanie Clegg picked up the puck in the left-wing circle and drilled it high into the near corner to make it 4-2.
At 14:59, the Panthers made the mistake of taking a penalty. At 15:50, Bloom denied Lloyd’s twice from point-blank range, but Lloyd tucked home the second rebound to make it 4-3.
Panther coach Bill Mandigo said Jeff power plays were the last thing he wanted to see.
“They’re the two-time defending NCAA champions. They’re going to keep coming. Their power play is just ridiculous. So we had to try to stay out of the box, and in the third period we just didn’t,” he said. 
To make matters worse, the Panthers took another penalty with 57 seconds left, and when Amherst pulled Hu with 40 seconds to go, the Jeffs had a six-on-four advantage.
But Bloom gloved the only late Jeff shot, a 30-footer from Randi Zukas, and clears by McNally and Maria Bourdeau killed off the last seconds.
“The clock couldn’t move fast enough,” Mandigo said. “I didn’t think that game was ever going to end.”
McNally said the Panthers relied on their preparation.
“We needed to … stay calm, play our positions,” she said. “We’ve practiced the penalty kill a million hours, so we knew what to do, and we just played smart and let the time tick away.”
In Saturday’s semifinal, the Panthers topped No. 4 Bowdoin, 4-0, as Bloom made 17 saves to increase to 10 her single-season school shutout record. Marrison, Melberg, Woodward and Lauren Greer scored, and Julia Ireland, Jennifer Krakower and Madison Styrbicki picked up assists; Styrbicki’s was her team-leading 16th.
A couple years back, Mandigo said he was concerned about his team’s inability to win big games. This year, that has changed: They split with Plattsburgh and took two of three from Amherst, and have won 13 of their past 14 outings.
Mandigo said Bloom’s play has been critical — she is one of the D-III leaders in goals-against and save percentage.
“She has confidence in herself, and the kids have confidence in her,” Mandigo said.
The Panthers also are relentless on the ice, he said.
“It’s become this team of hard work, skate hard and try to play smart, and then try to take advantage of opportunities when we get them, and we’ve done that,” he said.
McNally, who earlier this winter earned her 100th career point, said the team has the depth to allow the Panthers to go full speed.
“This is, in my four years, the best team we’ve had up and down,” she said. “We play four lines the whole game.”
Mandigo said the Panthers have also developed chemistry.
“It’s a great group … of good players, good kids with good character,” he said. “They just work hard and they have fun with each other.”
Now the Panthers are looking forward to the next challenge, and at least one more week of playing together.
“We’re excited, and when we’re excited, usually good things happen,” McNally said. “So I think good things will come for us.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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