MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Sealing their ticket to the national postseason, the third-seeded Amherst College women's ice hockey team capped off a perfect 3-0 NESCAC postseason ledger Sunday afternoon at Kenyon Arena as the Mammoths struck twice in the third period to edge top-seeded Middlebury College, 2-1, and claim the conference crown as the 2020 New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Champions.
"Winning the NESCAC Championship was an amazing feeling. To come out on top in the most competitive women's DIII hockey league in the nation is a huge testament to the character, commitment, and dedication of all our players and staff," commented Amherst head coach Jeff Matthews. "I could not be prouder of the resilience that this team exhibited on a weekly basis this season, especially when it mattered most. They played their hearts out, and stayed mentally tough and focused in the toughest moments, especially when they responded with a big shift to score the go-ahead goal just 13 seconds after Middlebury had tied the game 1-1 in the 3rd period."
No. 3 Amherst def. No. 1 Middlebury, 3-1 | 2020 NESCAC Championship Final Highlights
One of just three teams to appear in every NESCAC Championship tournament since its inception, the victory marks the program's fourth league title (2007, 2008, 2010, 2020) and first under the helm of Matthews. The win also puts an end to a frustrating stretch against the Panthers in the league postseason, with Amherst clinching its first win over Middlebury, who was looking to capture its fourth title in five years, in NESCAC Championship action since the 2006-2007 season.
Defense dominated a highly contested and fast-paced opening period, with the first shot on target not coming until the 8:43 mark and the sides combining for just six shots on frame in the stanza.
With the clock ticking down, both the Mammoths and the Panthers' best chance to get on the board in the first 20 minutes came with less than three minutes to go before intermission. Pushing the puck past a defender at the Amherst blue line, Morgan Griffin fired a wrister from the left dot towards net at the 17:34 mark that was gloved down by Caitlin Walker '22, before Lin Han came up with a kick save on a low backhander through traffic by Carley Daly '23 less than 20 seconds later to keep the teams in a 0-0 stalemate.
Looking to tally the first goal of the day after the break, the shot total more than doubled in the second period, with Middlebury testing Walker 10 times and the Mammoths forcing Han to make six stops in what stood as another scoreless stanza.
Threatening with 14 minutes on the clock, junior Kaitlin Hoang looked to put the visitors on top as she perfectly read a Panther defender and intercepted an attempted breakout pass at the offensive blue line to earn a breakaway, but her snap shot from the slot aimed for the upper left corner deflected off the top of the stick of Han.
Arguably the best of Walkers' saves in the contest came with 12:05 to play in the frame, with Division III's third-ranked keeper in goals against average coming up with yet another highlight reel stop in what has been a breakout sophomore campaign for the Columbus, Ohio native. Making a last second adjustment on a shot from Kiara Vazquez that deflected off the body of Delanie Goniwiecha on the left post, Walker snatched the puck out of midair to keep the Final bout scoreless entering the third period.
Hitting nylon on two of their three shots on net in the final stanza, Hoang broke open scoring 2:27 after the restart to tally her second goal in as many days and put the Mammoths' out in front, 1-0. Leslie Schwartz '23 kicked off the scoring play as she caught the Panthers on a change and dished a pass to Rose Mroczka '21 at mid-ice to give the forward a breakaway. Deking to her backhand, Han turned away the initial shot by Mroczka, but Hoang was there to put away the rebound for her eighth goal of the year.
Undeterred, the hosts responded with 13:53 on the clock as Madie Leidt tipped Claudia Vira's low shot from the left point through the legs of the Amherst keeper to notch her 19th marker of 2019-2020 and even things at one all.
Quickly shaking off the Panthers' score, Amherst needed just 13 seconds to counter with what proved to be the game-winner. Lining up for the ensuring face off, Anne Malloy '23 won the puck back to Emma Flynn '21 who sent it deep into Middlebury territory. Picking the pocket of a defender in the scrum behind the goal line with help from Malloy, E. Flynn cut out in front and snuck a shot inside the far right post to make it a 2-1 game.
The Panthers pressed for the equalizer in the closing minutes, but were unable to solve Walker who turned away solid chances by Jenna Letterie and Sidney Portner before the Mammoths' defense held Middlebury without a shot in the final 1:10 despite the home team pulling their keeper for the extra attacker.
The Panthers owned a 26-13 advantage in shots on frame on the day, while neither side was whistled for a penalty in a physical, but cleanly played battle. Racking up 25 stops, Walker earned the win in between the pipes for the Mammoths and improved to 16-5-5 on the winter, while Han (12-3-2) made 11 saves in the loss for the home team.
"I am very proud of this team, not just for this on-ice accomplishment, but for all they do as a student-athletes at Amherst College," Matthews concluded.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT
Earning an automatic qualifying bid and punching their ticket to the program's seventh NCAA Division III Women's Ice Hockey Championship Tournament, the Mammoths (17-5-5) are set to return to the national postseason for the first time since 2016 following the big win over Middlebury.
Joined by No. 8 Endicott (Colonial Hockey Conference), No. 4 Gustavus Adolphus (Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference), No. 7 Norwich (New England Hockey Conference), No. 1 Plattsburgh State (Northeast Women's Hockey League), No. 5 Elmira (United Collegiate Hockey Conference) and No. 9 Adrian (Women's Northern Collegiate Hockey Association) as the seven programs to claim their spot via conference titles, Amherst will have to wait until tomorrow, Monday, March 9 for the NCAA Selection Show to learn the final three teams who have also earned a chance at the National Title.
* * *