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Panther women’s hockey suffers tough tournament setback

MIDDLEBURY — There are painful losses, and then there are the kinds of setbacks the Middlebury College women’s hockey team suffered to visiting Norwich in Saturday’s NCAA Division III quarterfinal.
The 19-7-2 Panthers twice led by two goals, including by 4-2 with less than four minutes to go in regulation, and then lost to the Cadets, 5-4, 2:28 into double overtime.
Compounding the frustration was the Panthers’ failure to score in six power plays and the fact they surrendered their first power-play goal to an opponent in 37 chances — and that came with 3:39 left in regulation to make it 4-3 after a marginal tripping call in which the Norwich player did not fall or lose possession of the puck.
Middlebury Coach Bill Mandigo said his team simply had to do more in the two stretches in which Norwich scored its four regulation goals – two in 39 seconds of the second period and two in 42 seconds late in the third.
 “You’ve just got to play a little bit better in those situations,” Mandigo said. “I thought the kids responded at the end of the second period when we scored in the last minute, and then we got one early in the third. And then we just give up two (goals) late.”
The 23-5-1 Cadets advanced to play top-ranked Plattsburgh in the NCAA Final Four, at Adrian College in Michigan. Host Adrian will face Gustavus Adolphus in the other semifinal.
On Saturday, the Panthers struck first at 3:13 into the game on a Kelly Sherman goal set up by Maddie Winslow. Carly Watson sent Winslow down the left side, and Winslow found Sherman streaking alone into the high slot. Sherman buried a 15-foot wrister into the upper-right corner.
After that strike, Panther goalie Julia Neuberger (29 saves) made strong stops on Muranda Toews, Sarah Schwenzfeier and Adrieana Rossini to preserve the lead, and then the Panthers finished the period strong.
That momentum carried over to the second period, when the Panthers launched the first six shots and got a goal from Winslow. Defender Grace Jennings slid the puck from the right point to Haley Lafontaine at the left point for the initial shot. Cadet goalie Laurie King (41 saves) stopped Lafontaine’s low drive, but Winslow darted across the crease and tucked in the rebound at 7:39.
Norwich tied the game on its first scoring binge. The first goal came on a play on which a Panther defender fell as the Cadets entered the zone. The Cadets finished when Schwenzfeier stuffed a Rossini feed from the right corner inside the near post at 10:05.
Next, Sophie McGovern launched a slap shot from the right circle. The puck hit high off Neuberger, popped over her shoulder and dropped behind her into the crease for Bryn Labbe to poke in at 10:44.
The Cadets found life after the goals, but the Panther defense and Neuberger kept them at bay. Middlebury regained the lead with 40 seconds left in the period when Anna Zumwinkle’s high screened shot from the right point eluded King. Watson slid the puck over to Zumwinkle after taking a feed from Lizzie Sheline.
The Panthers made it 4-2 2:27 into the third, when Rachel St. Clair popped home a rebound of Katherine Jackson’s shot from the slot. King stopped Jackson twice before St. Clair rapped the puck home into the right side of the net.
Middlebury controlled the action for most of the period, killing one penalty with a couple of Neuberger saves, and appeared ready to book its ticket for the Final Four.
But the tripping call gave the Cadets another power play at 15:57, and they cashed in 24 seconds later, when Kim Tiberi banged in Schwenzfeier’s feed from the right side inside the far post.
Forty-five seconds later on a similar play, Adelle Murphy backhanded a Rossini feed inside the left post, and soon it was onto extra time.
The Panthers had a golden chance to win in the first overtime when Norwich was whistled for body checking Winslow 12 seconds after the faceoff. But King came up big, sliding over to deny Sidney Portner’s one-timer at the left post on a cross-crease pass.
“She made a great save in the first minute of the first overtime,” Mandigo said. “I don’t know how we don’t bury that, but I thought both goalies played pretty well.”
Both goalies made good saves in the first overtime, Neuberger on Tiberi and McGovern and King on Winslow. With 1.8 seconds to go the Cadets were whistled too many skaters on the ice, and the Panthers entered the second overtime on the power play.
But the power play was fruitless, and the Cadets attacked when it ended. Labbe won the puck behind the Panther net and circled clockwise for a wraparound. Neuberger denied her, but McGovern was waiting on Neuberger’s doorstep to push the puck home. Just like that, the Panthers’ season was over.
As were the Middlebury careers of Carly Watson, the defensive standout, team assist leader and co-captain from Montpelier; Victoria Laven, a solid presence in the back; Sherman, whose productive midseason team-up with Winslow gave the Panthers scoring balance; and hard-working and popular third-liner Allie Aiello.
Mandigo said that his team had accomplished a lot, including winning 10 of its past 11 to reach the NCAA tournament. But it remained a tough pill to swallow, particularly for those seniors.
 “Winning the NESCAC is always a big goal for us. It’s like-minded schools, and there’s so much at stake with that. And then getting to the NCAAs is a goal, although obviously they were looking for more,” Mandigo said.
 “It’s always hard when the season ends and you’ve got to go in there and see kids in tears, especially the seniors, because it’s all over. It’s not just that they lost, it’s all over. It’s done. There’s nothing that they’ll ever do that can mirror playing college hockey or whatever sport that you play. There’s nothing in the rest of your life that allows you the ability to compete and be part of team where everybody’s got one real goal.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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