MIDDLEBURY, VT – The Amherst College women's hockey team scored three power-play goals to advance to the program's first ever national championship game with a 3-2 victory over NESCAC rival Middlebury College in the national semifinals.
Friday's game marked Amherst's second appearance in the national semifinals, but the Lord Jeffs had never advanced to the title game. Saturday's game, which will begin at 7 p.m., will feature a live webcast, with the link available on Middlebury's championship website.
The game opened with some tentative play from both sides, with Middlebury's Anna McNally (St. Paul, MN) managing a shot from the slot, but junior Krystyn Elek (Summerville, SC) made a chest-save for Amherst to keep the scores level.
The Jeffs found themselves on a power play 10 seconds later as Middlebury was whistled for a tripping penalty. Amherst took full advantage of the opportunity when junior tri-captain Kirsten Dier (Appleton, WI) found senior Tarasai Karega (Detroit, MI) in transition. Karega beat a Middlebury defender at the blue line and found herself alone with the goaltender. After selling a fake to the goalie's stick side, Karega created an open net for herself on the glove side and slotted the puck in to put Amherst ahead, 1-0.
A minute later Middlebury attempted to respond when Ashley Bairos (Van Nuys, CA) received a chipped pass right in front of the Amherst crease. Elek remained resolute, making a great reflex save to deny the Middlebury forward.
Amherst again found itself on the power play with 3:40 to go in the period, and again took full advantage. Once first-year Stephanie Clegg (Woburn, MA) used some great stick-handling to get the puck into the Middlebury zone, she laid the puck off for a trailing Karega. After drawing two defenders, Karega switched the puck to Julia Koch (Rochester Hills, MI) on the left side boards. Seeing the crowd in front of the Middlebury net, Koch ripped a wrist shot on goal that managed to sneak into the top right corner, establishing a 2-0 lead for the Jeffs.
Amherst opened the second period with some physical play, determined not to let its two-goal lead slip. However, this resulted in two successive penalties early in the period. After killing off the first, the Jeffs were unable to keep Middlebury off the scoreboard during the second penalty. Forty-six seconds into the second infraction, and four minutes into the period, Molly Vitt (Kenilworth, IL) received a pass from Grace Waters (Snyder, NY) to the right of Elek's crease. Vitt quickly lifted the puck over Elek's sprawling pad to narrow the Jeffs' lead to just one goal.
As Middlebury continued to push for an equalizer, an Amherst turnover deep in its own end resulted in a dangerous scramble in front of the net. The threat was neutralized when Elek managed to cover up the puck, as Middlebury looked increasingly dangerous throughout the period. Amherst's Kate Dennett (Highlands Ranch, CO), Randi Zukas (Glen Head, NY), and Julie Radziewicz (Orlando, FL) all made timely interventions to help maintain the Amherst lead.
Twelve minutes into the second period, Middlebury gave the Amherst power-play unit the opportunity to go 3-for-3 on the night. Thirty seconds into the 5-on-4 advantage, Amherst forward Megan Curry (Shorewood, MN) managed to fend off two Middlebury defenders, only to have her shot blocked by a third. However, Karega got to the rebound first and forced a rebound out of Middlebury goaltender Alexi Bloom (Highland Park, IL). The resilient Curry never gave up on the play, getting to Karega's rebound and slamming the puck into the back of the net to put Amherst up, 3-1.
Middlebury would outshoot Amherst 9-5 in the second period, with perhaps its best chance coming with 2:11 to go. Vitt received a slicing pass on top of the Amherst crease and slapped a one-timer, only for the indomitable Elek to stone her from point blank range.
The Amherst penalty-kill unit was tested again early in the third period when the Jeffs were called for hooking 5:15 into the frame. Middlebury's best opportunity of the player-advantage came 42 seconds into the penalty when the puck found Erika Nakamura (Boston, MA) wide open in front of the net. Alyssa Chwick (Rye Brook, NY) and Elek combined to stymie the effort and kill off the penalty.
Amherst could not hold its ground on the next Middlebury power-play, and after the Jeffs were whistled for a hooking penalty Annmarie Cellino (W. Seneca, NY) scored for Middlebury with seven minutes left in the game to narrow the score to 3-2.
Middlebury was whistled for interference with 4:37 to go, which proved to be a key penalty as the Panthers were scrambling to find the equalizer. This penalty allowed Amherst to keep the puck in the hosts' end, allowing the Jeffs to halt any momentum Middlebury might build.
Amherst continued its relentless pressure until Middlebury pulled its goalie with 1:45 left in the game. With senior tri-captain Lindsey Harrington (Westford, MA) and Emily Vitale (Cheshire, CT) both diving on the ice to block shots, the determination permeating the Amherst squad became evident.
The Lord Jeffs would close out the game as victors by a final score of 3-2. Elek, who yesterday had been named to her third consecutive All-America Team, finished the night with 17 saves for the Jeffs, while her counterpart finished with 15 for the Panthers.
Amherst (23-5-0) moves on to the national championship game for the first time in program history. The Jeffs will take on Elmira College Saturday at 7 p.m., while Middlebury moves to 19-4-4 and will take on Wisconsin-River Falls in the national consolation game. Amherst defeated Elmira during the regular season by a 4-3 margin in overtime.