Women’s hockey nets NESCAC three-peat

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College women’s hockey team this past weekend continued its winter-long dominance of its NESCAC foes, winning twice on its home ice to claim its third straight league playoff title.
Sunday’s 2-0 win over Amherst in the championship game and 2-1 decision over Bowdoin in the semifinal pushed the 20-4-3 Panthers’ record against NESCAC foes this winter to 16-1-2, including a 15-game unbeaten string in league play that they extended with the two victories.
Their overall record includes a 16-1-3 mark since the Panthers, who are ranked No. 4 in NCAA Division III, returned to action after the holiday break. Their only loss since Jan. 1 came at home to No. 2 Plattsburgh, 2-1, in a game Middlebury outshot the Cardinals, 42-24. The Panthers also earned a tie at top-ranked Norwich.
Sunday’s win gave the Panthers the NESCAC berth in the NCAA tournament, and they will open at Plattsburgh (23-2-2) on Saturday at 3 p.m. in a quarterfinal. If Middlebury wins, a rematch with No. 3 Elmira, which dealt the Panthers an early-season loss on neutral ice, is probable in a national semifinal. Norwich looms on the other side of the bracket.
Senior Jessica Young, who scored in both games over the weekend, had a short and sweet answer about how the Panthers feel about their chances moving forward when asked after Sunday’s decisive win over 16-7-4 Amherst. 
“We’re very confident. Very excited and very confident,” Young said.
Regardless of how the Panthers fare against in an NCAA tournament that, because of western teams’ travel concerns, will probably mean that despite their No. 4 ranking they will have to defeat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams to claim the title, Coach Bill Mandigo said his team should enjoy what it accomplished this past weekend.
No NESCAC team has previously won three straight league titles, and the crown is Middlebury’s 10th in the league tournament’s 17-year history.
“I’m just really happy for them. The seniors have won three in a row, and they’ve played in this game four times,” Mandigo said. “And they get to hang a banner, which is big deal.”
On Sunday Amherst launched six of the game’s first seven shots. Panther freshman goalie Lin Han (23 saves) was sharp, gloving a strong Alex Toupal wrist shot from the left circle and kicking away a bid from Emma Griese as she skated through the slot.
But the Panthers took charge and by the end of the scoreless first period had outshot Amherst, 10-8, and forced Mammoth goalie Bailey Plaman (29 saves) to make tough stops, including on senior Maddie Winslow’s low bid on the rebound of junior defender Jenna Marotta’s screened shot from the right point, and on Young’s attempt to stuff a feed from freshman linemate Madie Leidt inside the right post.
But Plaman could do nothing with a Young shot at 8:56 of the second. Leidt poked the puck loose just outside the Amherst zone, and Young carried it into the right circle. From near the dot her strong wrister went in over Plaman’s left shoulder and just under the crossbar.
Plaman had better luck denying junior Katherine Jackson’s breakaway bid half a minute later.
But that seemed only to delay the inevitable, especially given that the Panther defense — Marotta, Lafontaine, sophomore Anna Zumwinkle, and freshmen Elise Park and Alexis Ryan skated regular shifts — and forechecking limited good looks on Han, who gave up one goal and made 46 saves in three tournament games. In the past 20 games, the Panthers have allowed more than one goal only four times.
“They work,” Mandigo said of his defenders. “And the young kids have gotten more and more experience, and they’ve gotten better. We do a good job of keeping the puck to the outside. They (opponents) may have possession of the puck at times in the zone, but the kids figure it out. And, again, it helps to have a goalie who can play.”
When the Mammoths got a power play early in the third the Panthers did not allow a shot. Young, Marotta, LaFontaine, Jackson and sophomore Sidney Portner took turns making defensive plays all over the ice.
After Han made a pair of routine stops on Amherst bids from the right-wing circle, senior forward Elizabeth Wulf made the Mammoths’ hopes all but extinct at 8:55. LaFontaine shot toward the right side of the net from the center point, and Wulf, camped out in the slot, tipped it back inside the left post. Amherst did not threaten the rest of the way.
On Saturday fifth-seeded Bowdoin (13-9-3) got a goal from Nell Fusco with 22 seconds to go in the first period to take the lead, but the Panthers’ 41-15 advantage in shots paid off in their 2-1 win.
Young knotted the game with 10:48 remaining in the second period on a power play; her centering pass from the right side deflected in off two Bowdoin players. Maddie Winslow earned an assist on the play.
In the third period, the Polar Bears killed off four Middlebury power plays, but Winslow scored the game-winner on the period’s fifth power play, a five-on-three opportunity. Leidt passed from the right point down low to Winslow, who one-timed it home with 5:35 remaining. Han made 14 saves, while Kerri St. Denis made 39 stops for the Polar Bears.
One factor in the success this weekend and in recent weeks has been Mandigo’s decision to play his top three scorers, Young, Winslow and Leidt, together. Meanwhile Wulf takes the ice with Jackson and Portner, and senior Janka Hlinka skates with freshmen Morgan Griffin and Ellie Barney.
Mandigo said typically it takes time to find the right mix, and now he believes the Panthers have it.
“The goal is at this time (of the season) you’ve got the right people playing together,” Mandigo said. “It’s experimenting. It’s figuring out who should be playing with whom. Because this is the time you want the right people clicking together.”
Young has played with Winslow and Leidt in the past, but not at the same time, and agreed the trio is gelling.
“Team chemistry is really important, and I could have played with anyone today. But I think those two, we work really well together. We know where each other are on the ice, and it’s been really successful, so hopefully we can carry it through NCAAs,” Young said.
Young added there are other things going right that could bode well for the Panthers, no matter how hard their NCAA draw is.
“I think just team defense. We really focus on just getting the puck out of the zone. And if you get the puck out of the zone you’re in the offensive zone most of the time,” she said. “So we just do the simple things right, and I think top to bottom, goalie through the forwards, we really work well together and we enjoy each others’ company, which doesn’t hurt at all.”
Mandigo credits the team’s seniors — Young, Winslow, Lafontaine, Wulf, Hlinka and goalie Julia Neuberger — for that chemistry.
“It’s a great senior class. It’s one of the best senior classes we’ve had in all the years I’ve been here,” Mandigo said. “They work hard. They’re hockey players. They come every day. They make everybody better. They’re fun to be around. I was actually thinking about it. Through the third period, it’s 1-0, and I’m like, you’ve got to enjoy this. Get your head out of thinking you might lose. Enjoy it because these kids are special.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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