Panther women skate to NESCAC crown, NCCAAs next

MIDDLEBURY — For the second straight winter and ninth time since the NESCAC created its postseason tournaments in 2002, the Middlebury College women’s hockey team earned the league’s playoff championship.
The No. 1 seed Panthers claimed the title on Sunday by subduing fired-up No. 5 Amherst, 4-1, in a game more competitive than the final score suggests. That win came the day after 19-6-2 Middlebury earned a more comfortable 4-1 semifinal victory over No. 6 Bowdoin.
As well as taking the league title with their seventh straight win and 10th in 11 games, the Panthers, ranked No. 6 in NCAA Division III, also earned NESCAC’s berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Panthers will host fourth-ranked Norwich (22-5-1) at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Middlebury defeated Norwich, 5-3, in Kenyon Arena on Jan. 31. That game triggered the 10-1 turnaround for Middlebury, which in that streak has lost only at top-ranked Plattsburgh.
And rival Plattsburgh is almost certain to await the Norwich-Middlebury winner in the Final Four, which will be held on March 17 and 18 at a site to be named.
On Saturday the 25-1-1 Cardinals will host St. Thomas (14-10-4). Plattsburgh ousted Middlebury in a competitive 2016 semifinal. The top seeds in the West bracket are Adrian and Wisconsin-River Falls, both 26-2.
Regardless of what happens next, the Panthers put big checkmarks on their to-do list on Sunday, said Coach Bill Mandigo — just before the Panthers dumped a celebratory bucket of water on him outside the team’s locker room.
“Today’s goal was to get the banner. And now we get another week together. And that will be the goal next week, going into the game on Saturday, is to get another week,” he said. “The season seems long, but four years of hockey goes away in a hurry.”
In Sunday’s first period Amherst (14-8-4) won puck battles and territory and took a 1-0 lead on a Sara Culhane goal at 12:47. Culhane took a crisp clearing pass from Katie Savage, skated into the Panther zone and fired a high shot on goalie Julia Neuberger. Neuberger made the save off her torso, but the rebound bounced back to Culhane, who tucked it inside the near post.
Despite the deficit, Middlebury forward Jessica Young, who picked up a goal and an assist in each tournament game, said the Panthers remained confident.
“We just knew that we weren’t playing our best, and if we worked hard and stayed together that we would get it done,” Young said.
Mandigo described what he told his team after the first period.
“If they wanted to be jumping up and down at the end of the game they needed to change the way the first period went,” he said. “And they did. In the second and third periods I thought they played very well. They skated, they moved the puck and they competed all over the ice.”
Amherst still worked hard, but chances were fewer, even though the shots remained even or in the Purple & White’s favor — a 31-22 edge overall.
And Middlebury began to threaten. Middlebury’s Janka Hlinka tied the game at 5:38 on play that started with an Anna Zumwinkle shot from the right point on Amherst goalie Sabrina Dobbins (18 saves). Dobbins stopped that bid and then Lizzie Sheline on the rebound, but Hlinka pushed the puck home in the scramble.
Young netted the go-ahead goal 2:45 later on a picture-perfect play. Hlinka sent Lizzie Sheline into the left side of the Amherst zone, and from the circle Sheline slung the puck to Young, who beat the defense to the goal front and stretched to tap it inside the far post.
“I knew if I got to the net and put the stick in the right place she was going to get it there,” Young said.   MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIOR Allie Aiello celebrates with teammates after scoring the first goal of Saturday’s game against Bowdoin. Middlebury won the NESCAC semifinal game, 4-1, and then beat Amherst on Sunday, also 4-1, to win the championship title.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The Panther defense and Neuberger (30 saves and NESCAC Player of the Week honors) took over from there. Neuberger made some tough stops, but the defenders, led by seniors Carly Watson and Victoria Laven, also mostly kept the shooters on the outside and cleaned up the occasional rebound.
“Neubs did a great job. She played very well,” Mandigo. “And we spend a lot of time in the defensive end in practice. We work at it, and I think the kids responded.”
The penalty killers also excelled, especially Maddie Winslow, Elizabeth Wulf, Hlinka and Young, as Amherst failed to convert four power plays as Middlebury stretched its kill streak to 34 straight.
Sheline and Young teamed up again at 14:15 of the third. Hlinka sent Young into the left circle, and Young fed Sheline for a 12-foot wrist shot in the slot. Watson’s empty-netter in the final minute made it 4-1 and sent most of the nearly 800 fans home happy.
On Saturday, the Panthers outshot Bowdoin, 35-10, in their 4-1 win. Middlebury did not allow the 13-10-4 Polar Bears to shoot on Neuberger (10 saves) in the third period, making the 2-1 lead they carried into the final 20 minutes feel safer than Sunday’s.
Senior Allie Aiello, judging by fan response the most popular Panther, gave her team the lead early in the second, burying a Young feed into the right circle. Winslow made it 2-0 at 10:02 on a five-on-three power play, snapping home a high shot from the left circle, from Hlinka and Watson.
At 19:08 of the period Bowdoin made it 2-1 when Julie Dachille poked the puck home in a scramble, with Brooke Solomon assisting.
But that was Bowdoin’s final shot on goal. Polar Bear goalie Kerri St. Denis kept the Panthers at bay for most of the third, but with 2:09 remaining Jenna Marotta wristed in a screened shot from the right circle, with Winslow and Young assisting. Young added an empty-netter.
Mandigo is happy the Panthers get to skate at least one more game in Kenyon Arena.
“To wear the white shirt in our rink and get these fans back again, I think will be awesome,” he said. 

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