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Panther women’s hockey team earns key NESCAC victories

MIDDLEBURY — Although the Middlebury College men’s and women’s basketball teams could easily earn NCAA Division III tournament bids this winter, the safest bet for a Panther NCAA bid might once again be the women’s hockey team.
The Panthers have played in every NCAA tournament except two since in 2002, and have earned the automatic bid that comes with the NESCAC playoff championship 10 times, including the past three winters.
And this past weekend’s home sweep of NESCAC rival Hamilton — 3-2 on Saturday and 4-1 on Friday — moved the 11-2-3 Panthers to 7-1-2 in the league. No other team has fewer than four losses. One of them is Hamilton, which dropped to 4-4-2, 10-6-2 overall, after entering the weekend with a chance to take over first place by beating the Panthers twice.
Williams (13-4-1, 8-4 NESCAC) has the best chance to catch the Panthers for first place and the right to host the playoffs, and the two teams close the regular season with a home-and-home series on Feb. 15 and 16.  
Holding off the Continentals was just one reason this past weekend was important for the Panthers. The Saturday prior they had suffered their first league loss, falling at last-place Bowdoin in overtime.
And on this Saturday they twice trailed by a goal in the third period before prevailing on senior Katherine Jackson’s strike with 35 seconds to go. And it was the team’s first third-period rally for a victory this season.
Jackson — one of only four Panther seniors (defender Jenna Marotta and forwards Katarina Shuchuk and Rachel St. Clair are the others) — said the weekend sweep topped off by winning under those circumstances would give the young team a lift.
“When we lost last weekend I think it was a big wakeup call for the team that in our league it’s very competitive, and anyone can win any game. And we knew going into this weekend Hamilton was going to be a really good opponent. So … this week in practice we worked as hard as we could,” said Jackson. “When we went down today it was a little hard, but I think we just stuck together as a team and pulled it out.”
In Saturday’s first period it didn’t look like late drama would be required. The Panthers outshot the Continentals, 11-3, and Hamilton goalie Sammy Johnson (26 saves) had to make good stops on Shuchuk from the left circle, Marotta and Anna Zumwinkle from the point and Ellie Barney from the slot.
Panther goalie Anna Goldstein (21 saves) made all three of her stops in the period in one sequence, denying Karina Sirabian from the left circle and then two rebounds in a scramble.
Hamilton came alive in the second period, however, especially after Johnson stopped Jackson and Barney from the slot early on. Two power plays gave the Continentals momentum they never lost, and Goldstein made a series of mid-period saves to preserve the scoreless tie.
But she couldn’t stop Nancy Loh’s breakaway at 19:36. After a lobbed clear bad-hopped Zumwinkle at center ice Loh converted a backhand deke to give Hamilton the lead.
It was the Panthers turn to come out strong in the third, and after about a minute of offensive zone time defender Eva Hendrickson’s shot from the right point found the near side; it appeared it might have deflected off a Continental out front.
Madie Leidt nearly scored a shorthanded goal to give the Panthers the lead 10 minutes in, but her slapper from between the circles went high off Johnson’s right shoulder.
At 12:22 the Continentals took the lead on a counterattack during a Panther line change. Mya Berretta poked in a rebound of Emily Williams’ point-blank shot.
Jackson said the Panthers did not get discouraged.
“When we went down again we looked at the clock. There was about seven minutes left. We just kept saying to each other there’s plenty of time left. Let’s keep working,” she said.
Barney knotted the score at 16:35 by capping a pretty end-to-end play. Defender Alex Ryan found Shuchuk in full stride heading down the right side. As she reached the inside of the right circle Shuchuk slide the puck to Barney cutting in from the left side, and her eight-foot snap shot bounced off Johnson’s left pad and into the far corner.
Goldstein made two more key stops, on Missy Segall between the circles with two minutes to go and on Loh at the right post as the final horn sounded.
In between Jackson rapped in the game-winner. Zumwinkle sent Sidney Portner into the zone, and from the right side near the red line she slid a hard shot along the ice. Johnson stopped the puck, but couldn’t control it. And Jackson, crashing the net, found it sitting next to the goalie at the top of the crease.
“I just skated down and saw the puck and hit it home and luckily it went in,” she said. “I just hit it as hard as I could, and I saw my teammates’ arms go up, and that’s when I knew it went in. And it was an awesome feeling.”
In Saturday’s 4-1 win Zumwinkle gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead in the first period, scoring from the right point with a shot to the top-left corner. Portner set up the strike. Leidt made it 2-0 in the second period by racing up the left wing and ripping a shot into the top right corner, with Barney assisting.
Hamilton’s Kate Piacenza made it 2-1 at 15:49 of the third. The Continentals pulled Johnson (18 saves), and Jackson and Shuchuk added empty-net goals. Panther goalie Lin Han made nine saves.
Then came Saturday’s drama, when the Panthers bounced back from the two one-goal deficits and the disappointment of the week before.
“Seeing our team rally and come back again where we got two wins was good for the underclassmen to see, and important for the upperclassmen. We only have eight games left in the regular season,” Jackson said. “I think this … was a really pivotal weekend for us, and that it was really important that we came out with a couple wins.”

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