Women’s hockey earns NCAA berth

MIDDLEBURY — Courtesy of Sunday’s dramatic 1-0 win over Amherst in the NESCAC playoff final, the Middlebury College women’s hockey team earned a home NCAA Division III quarterfinal.
The 21-3-3 Panthers, who will be seeking their first NCAA title since winning three straight from 2004 to 2006, will host a familiar foe, 18-6-3 Plattsburgh. Middlebury defeated the Cardinals in November, 4-1, but on Feb. 18 were fortunate to earn a 4-4 tie at home on Sara Ugalde’s last-minute goal.
Coach Bill Mandigo believes probably neither of those games will mean a lot this Saturday. He said Plattsburgh — the 2007 and 2008 NCAA champion — had an off night on Nov. 27, and his Panthers waited until the third period to show up in February.
“They weren’t playing very well at the time and things just kind of clicked for us. We played here a couple weeks ago, and we were awful and walked away with a tie,” Mandigo said. “We threw away the first two periods of the game, and played the third period pretty well. So if we put 60 minutes together, I think we’ve got a shot.”
Middlebury junior leading scorer Lauren Greer, whose goal 6:17 into Sunday’s overtime broke the scoreless tie, said she expects the Panthers will be focused from Saturday’s opening faceoff.
“We’re going to keep the energy high, and definitely hosting is huge,” Greer said. “It’s great to play on our own ice and we’re going to bring the energy.”
As well as energy, Mandigo said the Panther power play might have to be more effective on Saturday than it was against the Jeffs.
Amherst relatively easily killed the Panthers’ first three penalties, and Middlebury nearly coughed up a shorthanded goal with seconds left in regulation. Amherst forward Erin Babineau stripped the puck from a defender in the Middlebury zone and skated in alone on seemingly nerveless freshman goalie Annabelle Jones. But Jones smothered Babineau’s eight-foot forehand bid to send the game to OT with the most vital of her 16 saves.
“The thing that’s helped us all year long has been our power play, and Amherst did such a great job on the PK (penalty kill), it was almost embarrassing,” Mandigo said.
The Cardinals also have an effective power play, and Mandigo said the Panthers will have to avoid penalties, as they did against Amherst, when they were sent only once to the penalty box. Middlebury will also have to counter the Cardinals’ size advantage with effort, he said.
“It used to be they were big and they were slow. But they’re big and pretty fast. So we’re going to have to work hard,” he said. “I think our kids will play. They’ll be excited and energized and ready to go.”
Before facing Amherst, the Panthers had to top visiting No. 4 seed Trinity (15-11) on Saturday, which they did, 4-1.
Grace Waters gave Middlebury a 1-0 lead 11:17 into the first period with assists from Emily Fluke and Maggie Melberg. Trinity tied the game at 15:14 on when Lucy Robinson broke in beat Jones (27 saves).
The Panthers took a 2-1 lead in the second when Bantam goalie Alexa Pujol (19 saves) misplayed Maria Bourdeau’s dump-in from the blue line. In the third, Middlebury added late goals by Greer, from Katie Sullivan and Ugalde, and Madeline Joyce, into an empty net.  
On Sunday against the Jeffs — the 2009 and 2010 NCAA champs, who also earned an NCAA bid and will play at defending champ Norwich on Saturday — the Panthers dominated the first period with a 9-3 edge in shots.
Their best chance came 1:09 in, when a rebound popped to Ugalde, but Amherst goalie Sinead Murphy (24 saves) was positioned perfectly to make the stop. The Panthers had two power plays in the first 10 minutes, but only one shot, defender Heather Marrison’s screened bid from the right point that Murphy sticked away.
Midway through the period, Murphy stopped defender Hannah Bielawski from the right circle, and then stoned Molly Downey’s attempt to stuff the rebound in. At the other end, Bielawski, Marrison, Bourdeau and fellow defenders Jennifer Krakower and Madison Styrbicki took care of business in front of Jones and cleared effectively.
Amherst reversed the shot total in the second period. Jones stopped Emily Vitale early on, Babineau shot just wide on a rebound at 14:30, and Jones made two good stops on a late Jeff power play, one in a scramble out front before Ugalde, Sullivan and Greer worked the puck out of trouble.
At the other end, Murphy denied Melberg from close range early on. Midway through the period, Madeline Joyce pinged the crossbar from the right circle, and late in the period Murphy stopped Melberg again on a Bielawski set-up, and Styrbicki shot wide after the puck was loose in the crease.
The Panthers reasserted themselves in the third with a 10-4 shot advantage, but Jones had to stop Josie Fisher’s backhander from the slot in the early going. Then Marrison, Kate Moreau, Maggie Woodward, Sullivan, Bourdeau and Waters all had chances, and a deflected Greer shot rang the post. After Jones denied the late shorthanded bid, it was on to OT.
After early Panther pressure, including a bid by Sullivan set up by Fluke, the Jeffs had the Panthers briefly bottled up. Then Middlebury broke out of the zone, with the puck moving from Bielawski behind the net to Krakower in the right-wing corner. Krakower hit Greer in full stride just inside the blue line, and Greer carried quickly to the Amherst left-wing circle.
From just behind the faceoff dot, Greer launched a low, hard, partially screened wrister at Murphy. It bounced between her pads, and trickled slowly across the goal line as Bielawski skated in to make sure.
Greer described the play.
“When we started cycling the puck out of our zone, that was the rush,” she said. “I was like, we’re going to get this. This is right now.” 
Of course, after scoring the golden goal that gave her team a league title and an NCAA berth, Greer was buried by a sea of white jerseys in the left-wing corner.
“It’s a great moment,” Greer said. “It’s something that every hockey player, every athlete, dreams of.” 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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