Panther women’s hockey falls to Norwich in NCAA tourney

MIDDLEBURY — On Saturday night, the Middlebury College women’s hockey team suffered its second straight incredibly frustrating 3-2 loss.
But this one hurt even more than the one six days before, an overtime setback to Trinity in the NESCAC championship game in which Middlebury outshot the Bantams, 44-22.
That loss did not prevent the fifth-ranked Panthers from earning an at-large NCAA Division III bid and hosting No. 4 Norwich on Saturday.
But Saturday’s loss by the same score — in a game Middlebury controlled throughout; outshot the Cadets, 32-17; and had the game-tying goal waved off with 30 seconds to go — ended their season at 20-5-3, while the Cadets improved to 22-4-3.
The Panthers again ran into a hot goalie: Norwich’s Céleste Robert counted a number of point-blank stops among her 30 saves.
And it seemed every time they did make a mistake, despite a strong defensive effort overall, the puck ended up in their net.
“We gave up the puck three times and gave up three goals,” said Panther coach Bill Mandigo. “I thought we outplayed them, out-chanced them, and they capitalized on their chances, and we didn’t. The puck didn’t bounce our way.”
The bad luck extended to a couple of calls that had observers wondering. In the first period, a Norwich defender covered the puck for a couple seconds just outside the crease with the Panthers swarming the net.
And in the final minute, senior Katie Sullivan shot from close range. Robert could not immediately control the rebound, and Sullivan, senior Emily Fluke, Robert and the Cadet defenders all battled for it. Robert put her glove down, and the referee to the left of the net immediately blew his whistle — a split second before Sullivan poked what was apparently still a loose puck home.
Sullivan was already skating up the ice celebrating as the official waved off the goal, while Fluke was lobbying the goal judge in the stands. After a conference, the officials sent a Cadet to the penalty box — possibly the whistle blew because of the delayed penalty — and the score remained 3-2. The Panthers did not get another good chance.
Afterward, Mandigo did his best to be diplomatic when asked what happened and what the officials said.
“You have to ask them. I know what the kids say,” Mandigo said. “Not having the NHL replay or the Division I replay, you can’t do anything about it. It’s hard for the kids. We live with it. You work hard all year to get to this point, and then things don’t go your way. It’s hard.”
Still, for the second straight game, Mandigo said his team needed to find a way to translate its chances into production.
“Two goals isn’t enough,” he said. “We’ve got to put the puck in the net.”
The Panthers emerged from the opening period up, 2-1. Sullivan made it 1-0 at 10:17. Anna Van Kula shot from the bottom of the right circle, and the puck bounced off Robert to Sullivan off the left post, and she backhanded it home. Senior forward McKenzie Martin picked up the second assist.
Norwich tied it on a broken play in the Panther zone. Adelle Murphy corralled a loose puck in the left-wing circle and sent it back to Liz Gemmiti at the point. Her screened wrister found the upper left corner at 14:11.
Panther senior defender Hannah Bielawski made it 2-1 at 18:49 on a power play, ripping a slapper to the far corner from the top of the right circle. Defender Carly Watson fed her, and Fluke earned the second assist.
After finishing the first period with a 9-6 edge in shots, the Panthers launched the first eight shots of the second period, including testers from Van Kula and Sullivan early on.
At 7:12 the Panthers earned a power play, and Robert sprawled to deny Sherman and Sullivan and then Jessica Young on a feed from Fluke.
Then disaster struck. Cadet Vanessa Champagne blocked a shot at the Panther blue line and went in alone on Panther goalie Madeline Marsh (14 saves). Champagne went to her backhand and didn’t get much on the shot, throwing off Marsh’s’ timing, and it slipped between her pads to tie the game at 2-2 at 8:53. The shorthanded strike was the first Middlebury allowed this winter, and it was Norwich’s first shot of the period.
The Panthers, who outshot the Cadets, 13-6, in the period, kept coming, and Robert stopped Pam Schulman from in close after Bielawski picked off a clear. Norwich went on top after a Panther clear failed. Champagne shot from the left-wing circle. The puck hit a defender and dropped at Champagne’s feet, and she skated into the slot and backhanded home a short shot at 12:58. It was Norwich’s second shot of the period.
The Cadets dodged bullets in the third. Midway through the period on the power play, Watson hit the crossbar, and the puck dropped behind Robert and right in front of Young. She went to bang it home, but the puck hopped over her stick as she swung, and Robert recovered before Young could reload.
Shortly afterward the teams skated four on four, and the Panthers again attacked. Sullivan shot from the left side, and after another scramble the puck popped to the right with Robert down. Sullivan circled and had net to shoot at, but not enough leverage to lift the puck over the goalie, who smothered the bid.  
The Panthers pulled Marsh with two minutes to go, drew a penalty, and thought they had tied the game, but an NCAA title was not meant to be in a season the program won 20 times and gave Mandigo his 500th win.
None of that offered much comfort in the locker room and hallway outside on Saturday night, especially to the senior class: Fluke, Sullivan, Marsh, Martin, goalie Annabelle Jones, defender Laura McConney, Bielawski, and captain Kate Moreau, who played another outstanding defensive game. 
“We’ve got eight disappointed seniors,” Mandigo said. “I feel bad for them.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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