Girls’ hockey claims pair of big wins
MIDDLEBURY — Solid wins at Hartford on Saturday and then at home over Missisquoi on Monday moved the Middlebury Union High School girls’ hockey team back over .500 and into contention for a top-four seed for the Division II playoffs as the Tigers near the regular season’s home stretch.
The Tigers prevailed at Harwood, 7-1, before returning to the Memorial Sports Center to blank Missisquoi, 4-0. Middlebury’s record is now 8-6. The local team was expecting a challenge at home from first-place Woodstock on Wednesday (played after deadline for this edition), and Brattleboro will visit on Saturday at 5 p.m.
Most importantly, according to first-year Coach P.J. Lalonde, the team’s play has gotten better along with its record. Skating, puck movement and teamwork are all on the rise, he said, after a stretch where the Tigers, who dress only 12 skaters and two goalies, dealt with injuries and illnesses.
“Working as a team with the puck has been a point of emphasis,” Lalonde said. “These things are finally starting to click for us. They’ve really strung together two really solid games.”
Even after a stretch in which the Tigers dropped a couple winnable games before these past two successful outings, Lalonde agreed the Tigers have clearly improved since earlier this season, and have done so via the old-fashioned way.
“They all work hard in practice. We’ve been focusing on neutral zone regroups, breakouts, just puck-moving things,” he said. “They’re just starting to come into it and finding their game.”
Against the Highlanders, the Tigers took a 4-0 first-period lead, with Sawyer Witscher, Erin Sears, Ellie Wilkinson-Sachs (her first varsity goal) and Quinn Doria all finding the net in the opening 15 minutes. Sears and Erin Mulcahy added second-period strikes, and Sears completed a hat trick in the third.
Witscher assisted three goals, Lily Finn picked up two assists, and Hana Doria and Sears added an assist apiece. In goal, Ruby Hubbell and Michaela Charbonneau combined for seven saves. According to the official scorebook, the Harwood goalie made 74 saves, but Lalonde was skeptical that his team amassed 81 shots on goal.
The Tigers started more slowly on home ice against Missisquoi, largely because the T-Birds, who fell to 4-6-1 with the setback, were a more challenging opponent than the 0-10 Highlanders. In fact, they had defeated the Tigers in Swanton, 3-1, earlier this winter, although Missisquoi was outshot in that victory.
Shots on goal were even in Monday’s scoreless first period as the T-Birds carefully tracked Sears, the freshman who leads the Tigers in scoring. Witscher put a couple bids on goal early and fired just wide from the slot with 5:30 to go, and Kenyon Connors also just missed wide a minute later.
The Tigers’ best chance in the period came from defender Hana Doria on a rush with two minutes to go, but Doria’s blast from the left circle rang the crossbar. When MUHS goalie Ruby Hubbell blocked defender Brooke Rainville’s shot from the right point in the final seconds, it was on to the second period.
The Tigers began to pressure more steadily, and MVU goalie Jadyn Lapan denied several Tiger bids in an early scrum and then an Ireland Hanley deflection with six minutes to go. MUHS broke through with 4:28 left in the period. Sears picked up a loose puck in the defensive end, skated up the left side, deked a defender in the circle, and roofed the puck past Lapan from point-blank range.
With 1:03 left in the middle period, Finn made it 2-0, with two assists from Wilkinson-Sachs. Wilkinson-Sachs first won a puck deep in the zone and fed Finn at the top of the right circle. Wilkinson-Sachs then went to the top of the crease and engaged with a defender, and Finn’s shot from just inside the circle deflected in off the T-Bird as she and Wilkinson-Sachs jousted.
As the third period opened, Hubbell made a key save on a short backhand from Rainville to preserve the two-goal lead. Shortly afterward, Sears made it 3-0, skating into the zone, cutting left to right through the high slot, and whipping a forehand shot back into the upper right corner as she was falling. Witscher picked up the assist for sending Sears into the T-Bird end.
The T-Birds then took a series of penalties that dampened any hopes of a comeback and also allowed Sears to complete another hat trick with a power-play strike with 9:30 on the clock. Witscher fed her from the right boards, and Sears ripped a shot from the middle edge of the circle into the near side.
Missisquoi had one good chance in the period, but Finn broke up a three-on-one break. Lapan, who finished with 14 saves, also denied a late breakaway. Hubbell worked a nine-save shutout, her fifth of the season.
Lalonde was pleased with the Tigers’ two-way effort in the two victories.
“The play at both ends of the ice was very consistent,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’ve been stressing, and thankfully the last two games they’ve done a great job at both ends of the ice.”
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