Panther women’s hockey nets playoff bid vs. Norwich

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s hockey team lost a tough, 2-1 game to Bowdoin in Sunday’s NESCAC playoff final, but the Panthers this week still find themselves in a familiar position — preparing for an NCAA Division III tournament game for the 11th time in program history.
The Panthers, NESCAC’s top seed, will carry a misleading 18-7-2 record into NCAA play. Coach Bill Mandigo claims the Panthers have the toughest schedule in D-III, and the facts support his case: Five NESCAC foes, against whom Middlebury plays two games apiece, are ranked in the top 20, and the Panthers played a half-dozen other games against top-20 foes, five of those against top-10 teams.
“Our strength of schedule is way more difficult than anyone’s in the country,” Mandigo said, “and our league is the toughest league.”
That schedule probably helped the Panthers earn an at-large bid despite the seven losses. They will travel to Northfield on Saturday to face Norwich University (22-3-3), with the winner advancing to meet the winner of another Saturday quarterfinal between St. Norbert (18-9-2) and top-ranked Plattsburgh (25-0-2).
In the other Saturday quarterfinals, Elmira (21-5-1) visits Bowdoin (21-4-2), and Wisconsin-River Falls (21-6-2) travels to Gustavus Adolphus (26-0-1).
The Panthers will be looking on Saturday to avenge a Feb. 12 5-3 home loss to Norwich. In that game, Middlebury outshot the Cadets, 30-21; surrendered a 2-1 first-period lead; and did not play sophomore goalie Annabelle Jones, who has since established herself as the team’s No. 1 between the pipes.
Mandigo said it was also not the team’s best night, a fact that gives him some hope for Saturday’s rematch, even though Middlebury is 0-3-1 all-time vs. the Cadets.
“The night we played them, we competed hard, (but) we left goals on the ice, and I thought we gave up some bad goals,” he said. “I think it’s two pretty even teams, and I think our kids will be ready.”
Jones has also been playing well, he said.
“Annabelle’s kind of been on a roll,” Mandigo said. “That helps. The kids have some confidence in her.”
A few different bounces — and a couple fewer turnovers — and maybe the Panthers would be hosting on Saturday. Even though Bowdoin outshot the Panthers, 38-25, in Sunday’s NESCAC title game, Middlebury might well have had the better chances.
“We had plenty of opportunities to score goals,” Mandigo said. “We just didn’t take advantage.”
The first costly Panther mistake came less than a minute into the game. Polar Bear Chelsea MacNeil intercepted an errant Panther pass and found Ariana Bourque on the right side. Jones (36 saves) stopped Bourque’s shot, but MacNeil pounced on the rebound at 0:58 to give Bowdoin the lead.
Middlebury tied the game with a pretty power-play goal at 10:23. Madison Styrbicki made a slap pass to Sara Ugalde on the right side, and Ugalde centered to Lauren Greer cutting into the slot. Greer one-timed a 10-footer inside the far post. Middlebury pressured Bowdoin with two more power plays in the period, but Bowdoin goalie Kayla Lessard made 11 first-period saves.
Bowdoin outshot Middlebury in the second period, but the Panthers had the better chances. Greer missed just high at 7:15, while Lessard just got her glove on a Mackenzie Martin just over a minute later. The Panthers also were all but certain they had taken the lead soon after that, but Katie Sullivan’s backhanded rebound bid with half the net open sailed just past the right post.
Bowdoin pressured the Panthers and had them running around in their own end early in the third and scored the game-winner at 2:49, again taking advantage of an errant clearing pass. Kayte Holtz intercepted at the center of the blue line and backhanded the puck to Colleen Finnerty off the left post, and Finnerty forehanded it back into the right side of the net.
The Panthers reasserted themselves. At 13:30 mark, Hannah Bielawski walked in and was stopped by Lessard. Moments later, Lessard denied Jennifer Krakower, and Sullivan’s rebound again drifted just wide right. The puck caromed around the board back to Krakower’s at the right dot, but her slapper hit the inside of the right post and ricocheted toward the left-wing boards. Middlebury carried possession the rest of the way, but could not equalize as Lessard made 24 saves.
Mandigo acknowledged Bowdoin might have been “a little bit hungrier,” but also said luck played a role in the setback.
“It just wasn’t our day,” Mandigo said. “The bounces wouldn’t go.”
In Saturday’s semifinal, Middlebury beat Connecticut, 4-1, on goals by Emily Fluke, two by Madeline Joyce, and one by Sullivan. Sullivan scored in the third and set up Joyce’s strike in that period as the Panthers broke open a 2-1 game. Jones stopped 28 shots, and goalie Kelsie Fralick made 34 saves for the 14-11-1 Camels.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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