Women’s Hockey Upset in NESCAC Final, Earns NCAA At-Large Bid

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Women’s Hockey Upset in NESCAC Final, Earns NCAA At-Large Bid

By Fritz Parker

Trinity junior Cheeky Herr deflected a puck over the shoulder of Middlebury goalkeeper Maddie Marsh ’15 in the first minute of overtime to send her team to their first ever NESCAC women’s hockey title on Saturday, March 7 in Kenyon Arena. The Middlebury squad — 4-2 winners over Bowdoin in Saturday’s semifinal — were selected to participate in the upcoming NCAA tournament despite the conference setback, and will host a quarterfinal game on Saturday.

After beating Hamilton in the conference quarterfinals the week before, the Panthers faced off with fifth-seed Bowdoin in semifinal action on Saturday. After a relatively quiet first period, Middlebury broke through for the game’s first goal on a power-play strike from Hannah Bielawski ’15, assisted by Carly Watson ’17 and Jessica Young ’18.

Up 1-0 in the early minutes of the second period, NESCAC Player of the Year Emily Fluke ’15 added to the lead with assists from Young and Janka Hlinka ’18. A pair of Bowdoin penalties later in the period did not result in further scoring for Middlebury, and the Panthers went into the second intermission with a two-goal lead over the Polar Bears.

The lead expanded in the sixth minute of third-period play on a tally from Elizabeth Wulf ’18. From that point, however, the Polar Bears were able to wrest some of the momentum from the Panthers, gaining several advantages on the offensive end of the ice. 

Bowdoin cut into the lead with a goal at the six-minute mark to make the score 3-1. Fluke’s second of the game — and her 20th of the season — brought the Panther lead back up to three before Bowdoin fired back with a goal of their own.

Just as the game started to tighten up in the second half of the final period, the Panther defense stepped up to deny several Bowdoin scoring opportunities. After killing off a penalty in the final minutes of the game, Middlebury went on to win 4-2 to advance to the league final.

Middlebury held a 29-21 shooting advantage in the game, playing the entire 60 minutes without committing a penalty, while going one for two on the man-up advantage.

After Trinity defeated second-seed Amherst in Friday’s late semifinal, the stage was set for Saturday’s final between the Panthers and Bantams. The two teams played twice during the regular season, splitting a weekend doubleheader in Hartford all the way back on Nov. 22 and 23.

The final did not begin as the Panthers had envision, however. Trinity’s Herr beat Marsh for her first goal of game in just the third minute of play. That lead would quickly expand to two as Bantam Emma Tani caught a juicy rebound after Marsh had laid out to make a pair of tough stops, burying the putback to give her team a 2-0 lead over the favored Panthers.

The atmosphere in Kenyon Arena changed markedly after the second Trinity goal, which brought a murmur over the crowd of primarily Middlebury supporters. The crowd grew even quieter after a pair of clean looks for the Bantams in the 15th minute of the period nearly resulted in another Trinity goal, but Marsh again fended off the puck in order to keep the deficit to two as time ran out on the opening period.

The Panthers got a chance to cut into the lead in the first minute of the second period when Trinity’s Shelby Lane went to the penalty box for interference. The Bantams killed off the penalty as goalkeeper Sydney Belinskas stopped a pair of hard blasts from Bielawski, but Middlebury was soon able to convert the offensive momentum into their first goal of the game, which came from Wulf who just got her stick on a feed from Katie Mandigo ’16. 

Wulf nearly struck again in the final minute of the period, but Belinskas deflected the puck away to held her team cling to a one-goal lead after two periods of play.

After a Trinity penalty led to a Middlebury powerplay, Maddie Winslow ’18 was able to break through a scrum that formed in front of the Trinity net to slide the puck past the goalkeeper. The referees initially ruled no goal on the play, but changed their call a split second later to give the Panthers the game-tying goal and send the crowd into hysterics.

Finding themselves again on the power play midway through the period, the Panthers inundated the Bantam net with shots but could not beat Belinskas for the game-winner. After several minutes of even play, Fluke fired off a wrister through a screen as the clock expired, which Belinskas gloved to send the game to extra time.

It would take less than a minute of overtime to decide the result. Just 54 seconds into the period, Herr deflected the puck past Marsh to take the game 3-2 and the conference title as well.

Middlebury took a loss in the title game despite doubling up Trinity in the shooting department, 44-22. Belinskas had an exemplary night in the net for the Bantams with 42 saves, while Marsh stopped 19 shots for the Panthers in her second loss of the year.

While Trinity claimed the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with their conference championship win — just the program’s second ever appearance in the national tourney — the Panthers were selected as an at-large participant when the committee released the field on Monday, March 9. 

The Panthers return to the tournament after an uncharacteristic absence a year ago, just the second time that the team had failed to qualify for the eight-team field. Middlebury advanced to the national final during their last trip in 2013, falling there to Elmira. The Panthers last hoisted the national championship trophy in 2006.

Fifth-ranked Middlebury’s path back to the title game begins on Saturday, March 14, when they will host fourth-ranked Norwich at 7:00 p.m. in Kenyon Arena. The Panthers won 2-1 in overtime during the teams’ lone matchup this season, and will look for a similar result with the stakes ramped up this time around.

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