Tiger girls’ hockey rallies, but falls to Essex, 4-1

MIDDLEBURY — Defending Division I girls’ hockey champion Essex outlasted host Middlebury on Saturday by 4-1, a score that included two empty-net goals for Essex in the final 46 seconds.
The defending D-II champion Tigers, who moved up to D-I this winter, outshot the Hornets, 28-22, including by 24-10 after a first-period that saw the Hornets take a 2-0 lead.
The result tightened up the D-I standings with home playoff ice at stake as the regular season nears its end.
The 13-4 Tigers and Northfield (12-3-2), another D-I newcomer, are tied for first with 34 points, each with three games to go. Essex (11-6) is right behind at 31 points.
Next are lurking perennial power BFA-St. Albans (8-7-1, with a win over MUHS) with 26 points and four games to go, and 2014 D-II finalist Burr & Burton Academy (10-6), with 25 points and four games left.
And the Tigers face challenging foes in their final three games, all on the road: sixth-place Spaulding (8-6, including a 6-3 win at MUHS) on Wednesday, Burr & Burton on Saturday, and St. Albans on Feb. 18.
Co-Coach Matt Brush noted the importance of the stretch run: The top two seeds get home ice until the final at the University of Vermont’s Gutterson Arena.
“We have a big game against Spaulding on Wednesday,” Brush said. “We have three games left, and the standings are tight. If we can secure a 1 or 2 seed, that will really help us in our quest to get to Gutterson.”
Brush will be happy if the Tigers play as well as they did in the final two periods vs. Essex. 
“Obviously, the first period wasn’t our best period. But we really played hard the second and third periods. We had a lot of really good chances. A couple of different bounces of the puck and it’s probably a different outcome,” Brush said.  
The Hornets had just lost, 4-3 to St. Albans, and possibly took out some of their frustration in a first period that followed a ceremony honoring Tiger seniors Angela Carone, Erika Carroll, CareyAnne Howlett, Baily Ryan, Harper Smith and Alli White at their last regular season home game.
They outshot the Tigers, 12-4, in the first 15 minutes and forced errant passes with strong forechecking. The Tigers did create the first chance, but Essex goalie Victoria Gibson denied Tiger Helen Anderson for the first of her 26 saves.
A clearance miscue up the left-wing boards led to the first Essex goal, at 5:11. Defender Avery MacGillivray picked off the pass and fed Hornet standout Kathleen Young just inside the opposite circle, and Young whipped the puck low into the near side.
Shortly afterward, Tiger goalie Ryan (18 saves) stopped Hornet Kaitlyn Butkus from the slot, one of Ryan’s several strong stops in the period. The Hornets also earned a power play, and Ryan denied Young from point-blank on a MacGillivray rebound. Good defensive work by Emma Best, Satchel McLaughlin, Carone, and Lauren Bartlett kept the Hornets off the boards during the Essex advantage.
At 3:05, Gibson stopped the Tigers’ best chance of the period, a bid from Julia Carone from the slot, and 17 seconds later it was 2-0. Butkus moved the puck to MacGillivray along the left-wing boards, and her shot slid into the far corner.
The ice tilted the other way in the second period, with MUHS forechecking relentlessly and outshooting Essex, 13-4. Best had a look from the slot early on, and then on a power play Gibson stopped Anderson on a setup from defender Tajah Marsden. Gibson also denied Marsden’s bid from the left point.
The Tigers forced another Essex penalty at 7:36, and Gibson stopped White and Andi Boe shots from the slot, and another White one-timer from the slot right after the power play expired.
Ryan got into the act at 11:00, sliding her right pad to stop Young’s point-blank backhand.
The Tigers earned another power play with 1:25 to go, and this time converted. White fed Angela Carone along the right-wing boards. Carone skated across the top of the circle and found the net with a screened wrist shot at 14:47.
But the Tigers could not manage the tying goal in the third, despite good chances from Tulley Hescock, Best, Boe, Marsden and, at 3:07, from Julia Carone, who watched Gibson flash her glove and snatch her 12-foot wrister.
The Tigers had to pull Ryan, but it didn’t pay off, as Young and Melanie Theriault capped off what were solid games for both with empty-net strikes.
TIGER JUNIOR LAUREN Bartlett controls the puck at center ice during Wednesday’s game against Rutland, which the Tigers won, 1-0. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
On the previous Wednesday, the Tigers defeated visiting Rutland, 1-0. Best scored in the third period with a feed from Boe. Ryan, starting in place of ailing Rowan Hendy, worked an eight-save shutout. Kelsey Eddy had 36 saves for the 7-9 Raiders.
As well as Hendy, on Saturday the Tigers were also missing starting defender Sara Kelly. Another starting defender, Abby Gleason couldn’t continue after the first period.
“We were down three players, one of them being our goalie,” Brush said. “But Baily played really well tonight.”
He said bigger issues were the slow start and Essex’s extra focus after the St. Albans setback.
“I’m sure they had a little sense of urgency. And then having to sit through our senior night sometimes it gives a team a little extra motivation,” Brush said. “All those factors combined, and we were still putting away the flowers, as it were.”
But he and co-coaches Tim Howlett and Derek Bartlett were happy with the Tigers, all things considered, on Saturday.
“We’ll be very determined if we see them in the playoffs,” Brush said. “Or anybody else.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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