March 9, 2009

The Middlebury College women's hockey team won its fifth NESCAC Championship and improved to 14-4 in tournament play, as they earned a 4-3 overtime win at Amherst. The loss avenges a pair of regular season losses to the Jeffs, as the Panthers earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Middlebury improves to 19-3-4, while Amherst falls to 21-5-0. Middlebury will host the eighth-annual NCAA Division III Women's Hockey Championship. The Panthers drew a first-round bye, and will host the semifinals and finals on Friday, March 20th and Saturday, March 21st in Kenyon Arena. This will mark the second time Middlebury has hosted the event, earning a 2-1 win over Wis.-Stevens Point in '04. Ticket information will be available on Monday, March 16th.

The loss snapped four significant streaks for Amherst, including its 50-game unbeaten streak against NESCAC opponents (43-0-7), six-game unbeaten streak against Middlebury (3-0-3) and eight-game overall winning streak. The Jeffs were also attempting to become the first team to win three consecutive NESCAC titles.

The teams traded roles when Middlebury was given 31 seconds of a 5-on-3 to work with, and the Panthers did what the Jeffs were unable to do earlier, by scoring the game's first goal. Sophomore Nora Bergman (Concord, Mass.) took a shot from the point and had it blocked by goaltender Caroline Hu. Rookie Maggie Melberg (Woody Creek, Calif.) was there to clean up the rebound, taking advantage of a wide-open net to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead.

Still on the power play, Middlebury increased its lead to 2-0 just 57 seconds later when senior Randi Dumont (Greene, Maine) lofted a shot from the point. Hu appeared to be screened on the play as the puck made its way to the back of the net, and the visitors suddenly had a two-goal lead with 5:29 to play in the first.

Amherst stormed right back and needed only 70 seconds to cut its deficit in half. After a scramble in front of the Middlebury net, Kirsten Dier was finally able to fend off the crowd of players and poke a shot past sophomore Alexi Bloom (Highland Park, Ill.), marking the game's third goal in a span of 2:07.

The Jeffs went on another power play with 1:51 to play before the first intermission but could not find the equalizer, as they headed into the locker room trailing 2-1 with nine seconds remaining on their 5-on-4. Amherst put 20 shots on net in the period but could beat Bloom only once, while Middlebury put just four shots on target.

It took Middlebury only 3:14 to bump its lead to 3-1, as the visitors scored their third power-play goal of the game. The Panthers entered the weekend boasting the NESCAC's best power play conversion rate (21 percent) and put it on display for the fans at Orr Rink. Senior Annmarie Cellino (W. Seneca, N.Y.) was credited with the goal, giving her two on the weekend and 11 on the season. Amherst again responded well and put heavy pressure on the Middlebury defense, but Bloom came up with several spectacular saves to preserve the two-goal lead.

The Jeffs were given another brief 5-on-3 opportunity eight minutes into the second period. The Panthers killed the first penalty but could not fight off the second, as Megan Curry put home a rebound to make it a 3-2 game at the 7:28 mark. The visitors from Middlebury headed into the second intermission with a 3-2 lead. Bloom racked up 40 saves in the first two periods, as the Jeffs held a convincing 42-13 edge in shots on goal.

The first eight minutes of the third period flew by as neither team sent a player to the penalty box, creating a pace that differed from the first two periods when a combined 11 penalties were called. Amherst seemed to increase its intensity as the midpoint of the third frame approached, and it paid off when Michelle McGann tied things up with her first goal of the weekend. The game stood at 3-3 with 11:10 to play in regulation.

McGann provided the lone goal of the third period, as the teams headed to the locker room still deadlocked at three goals apiece. The only other overtime game in the history of the NESCAC Championship finals came in the 2007 tournament, when Amherst earned a 2-1 triple-overtime victory at Middlebury to mark the longest game in the history of Division III women's hockey.

Less than three minutes into the extra period a pair of penalties resulted in two minutes of 4-on-4 hockey, during which Amherst's Lindsey Harrington nearly ended the game in the Jeffs' favor. After receiving a long pass from behind the midline, Harrington headed straight for the goal and had nobody to beat but Bloom. The Panther netminder came up big once again, this time by making a game-saving stop on a breakaway.

Bloom's save was followed by the game-winning goal five minutes later, with sophomore Anna McNally (St. Paul, Minn.) earning the game-winner. McNally carried the puck along the boards with one defender at her side and two others nipping at her heels, but managed to break free and slide the puck toward Hu as she fell to the ice. The puck trickled across the goal line and the Middlebury bench cleared, as the Panthers earned the title. Bloom finished with 52 saves on the day, while Hu stopped 20 shots.

Middlebury advanced to the NESCAC Championship game after defeating Colby 4-2 at Amherst. The first period was dominated by the Panthers, who out-shot the White Mules by a 33-13 edge. Despite the high number of shots, Middlebury held just a 13-7 edge in shots on goal. The only goal of the first period came just before the mid-point of the frame, as Cellino found herself wide open in the slot for a slap shot into an empty net. Colby netminder Lacey Brown made a pair of saves that drew her out to the right of the crease, before a final rebound gave Cellino an open net to bang home. Assists on the game's opening score were awarded to first-year player Grace Waters (Snyder, N.Y.) and McNally.

Colby came out of the first intermission with a renewed fire, and found an equalizer just 3:05 into the frame. The White Mules score came off the stick of Andrea Fuwa, with an assist coming from Laura Anning. Fuwa's score was on a deep slap shot through traffic from straight away.

The top-ranked Middlebury offense was awaken by the Colby score, and immediately put heavy pressure on Brown. After a few close calls, the Panthers regained the lead on a score with 13 minutes to play. Off a nice feed from Dumont, sophomore Heidi Woodworth (Princeton, N.J.) skated through the slot for a top-shelve score to put Middlebury up 2-1.

The Panthers needed only five more minutes before opening up a 3-1 lead, this time on a score from rookie Haley MacKeen (Antigonish, N.S.). After a pair of saves by Brown, the puck was sitting in the crease just inches off the goal line for MacKeen to dive over the Colby goaltender and poke in.

After the early goal from Colby, Middlebury took control of the remainder of the second period, and after two stanzas held a dominating 40-14 edge in shots on goal. The third period started with more of the same from the Panthers, as they opened up a 4-1 margin with 12:27 to play in regulation. Junior Ashley Bairos (Van Nuys, Calif.) scored the goal this time, with helpers going to sophomore Andrea Buono (Ashburnham, Mass.) and junior Heather McCormack (Rowley, Mass.).

Colby grabbed a score back with 6:21 to play in the third period shortly after coming off a 5-on-3 power play. The White Mules scored with just seconds left on one of the power-plays to cut the deficit to 4-2. The Colby goal was put home by Anning, on a feed from Colette Finley.

Neither team scored another goal, as Middlebury closed out a 4-2 win to advance to their sixth NESCAC Championship game since 2003. Bloom finished with 18 saves in net for Middlebury, while Brown made an amazing 57 saves in the loss for Colby. The White Mules end their season with a 12-11-3 mark, while the Panthers improve to 18-3-4 with the win.
. Women's hockey record: 19-3-4
. Up next: 3/20-21 - Host Frozen Four - 3:30 & 7:00