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Panther women switch off U-Mass Beacons, 4-0, in NCAA quarter-final

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s hockey team sent another postseason crowd of about 1,000 fans home happy on Saturday, when the Panthers dominated UMass-Boston, 4-0, in an NCAA quarterfinal played at Kenyon Arena.
The crowd for the 21-4-3 Panthers’ semifinal against No. 1 Plattsburgh (27-1) at 3:30 p.m. Friday will not be as friendly — the Cardinals’ Stafford Arena, where the home team always enjoys solid support. The final is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday.
The Panthers lost at Stafford once already this winter, 3-0, on Jan. 12. But since that setback, they have won 16 times in 17 outings and, according to Coach Bill Mandigo, have met his annual goal of playing their best at the end of the season despite injuries — they lost all-American defender Carly Watson for the season in December, and starting freshman defender Grace Jennings was hurt in the NESCAC final the week before and did not play on Saturday, for example.  
“They’ve done a great job. They’ve grown as a team. They’ve gotten better. They’ve learned,” Mandigo said. “They’ve had some ups and some downs, but they’ve hung in there. I’m proud of them.”
Senior captain Julia Wardwell, a defender who assisted the team’s first two goals on Saturday, said things came together for a young Panther group as the season wore on, largely due to hard work.
“We had just kind of clicked as a team,” Wardwell said. “We decided we wanted to keep going in the postseason and everyone showed up every day to practice. And it’s been a collective effort all around.”
Sophomore leading scorer Maddie Winslow, whose second-period power-play goal proved to be her fourth-straight game-winning strike, said the Panthers know they will have their work cut out for them at Plattsburgh, where Elmira and Wisconsin-River Falls will meet in the other semifinal.
At the same time, Winslow, recently named the NESCAC Player of the Year, said the Panthers are confident in their ability.
“We want to beat the best to win (the championship), so it’s going to be an awesome game. We played them earlier in the season, and we don’t think we had our best game against them, so we’re going to prepare this week to play them even harder,” Winslow said. “We’re coming for them.”
Before the Panthers could think about the Cardinals, they had to take care of UMass-Boston, a 16-12 team that had ridden hot goalie Rachel Myette to consecutive upsets of Castleton and Norwich — teams that had defeated Middlebury this winter — to earn its NCAA berth.
Myette had stopped 79 of 80 shots in the Beacons three postseason wins, and saved a dozen Panther bids in Saturday’s scoreless first period. Notably in the period, Myette, who finished with 26 saves, broke up a senior Anna Van Kula breakaway set up by senior linemate Katie Mandigo, stoned sophomore Allie Aiello’s close-range backhander, denied sophomore Jessica Young on a two-on-one with Winslow, and made three stops on a Panther power play late in the period.
The Beacons showed some more life in the second period after being outshot by 12-2 in the opening period, and Panther sophomore goalie Julia Neuburger (13 saves) used her blocker to deny Beacon Maren Brown’s strong bid from the right circle in the first minute and soon after stopped Allie Bianchini from the bottom of the right circle.
But the Panthers soon began to reassert themselves, moving the puck crisply, stepping into passing lanes, forechecking effectively, and winning the battles along the boards.
Mandigo agreed his team played a complete game.
“They broke the puck out very well. They moved it from side to side. They were a bit nervous in the beginning, but they got better,” he said. “Offensively, I thought we controlled the play. We controlled the puck.”
After chances by Panther freshmen Shanna Hickman and Rachel St. Clair and then Winslow, the pressure forced a penalty at 11:24. At 12:29, Winslow made it 1-0 after Wardwell sent her into the left side of the Beacon zone, with freshman defender Jenna Marotta getting the second assist. Winslow fired a bullet from just inside the left circle into the upper right corner, beating Myette cleanly.
The score remained at 1-0 into the third period, but not for long. After Winslow hit the crossbar early on, at 1:54, sophomore Janka Hlinka won a puck in the left corner, skated toward the net and beat Myette with a low, 15-foot wrister.
 At 3:42, Winslow made it 3-0. Hlinka started the play at the right point, sliding the puck to Wardwell at the left point. Wardwell sent a hard slapper toward goal, and Winslow, about four feet off the left post, tipped it home.
The Beacons’ best chance to score came on a power play that began at 7:02. Neuberger stopped a Jenny Currie backhand early on, and at about 6:30 flashed her right skate to deny a close-range tip by Alexandra Karlis.
Sophomore Elizabeth Wulf capped the scoring at 10:45, when she tapped in a rebound of a Winslow shot from the left circle that Young set up with a drop pass. Senior Micaela Thibault almost made it 5-0 in the final minute, but rang a post.
The Panthers will be seeking the program’s first NCAA title since 2006 and are going to the final four for the first time since 2013, when the current seniors were first-year players.
“The seniors went as freshmen,” Mandigo said. “I’m not sure they stepped on the ice very much. But they’re going to go back as real contributors, and I’m really happy for them.”
Wardwell confirmed the second trip would be special.  
“It’s just a dream come true,” she said. “We were fortunate to have it our freshman year and to have it our senior year means so much more.”
Saturday’s game also carried extra meaning for Wardwell and the team’s other four seniors, all of whom played except goalie Marisa Dreher.
“It was pretty surreal. I kept thinking as we went through the postseason that this would be my last game in Kenyon, and I couldn’t have asked for a better last game,” Wardwell said. “It’s sad, but we still have a week of practice left to spend in this amazing arena.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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