AMHERST, MA – The Amherst College women's ice hockey team dropped a heartbreaker to Middlebury College in the NESCAC Championship finals, as the second-seeded Panthers earned a 4-3 overtime victory to prevent the top-seeded Lord Jeffs from claiming a third consecutive conference title.
Middlebury improves to 19-3-4 and earns an automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament, while Amherst falls to 21-5-0 and will hope to receive an at-large bid. The Panthers—ranked sixth in the latest USCHO national poll—increased their winning streak to six games and won their fifth conference crown. Middlebury is now 14-4 in NESCAC Championship games, marking the best winning percentage in the conference.
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.
Amherst was handed 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 opportunity 9:02 into the opening period, but the Lord Jeffs quickly returned it to 5-on-4 when they were whistled for a roughing penalty. Nothing came of the power play, as Middlebury escaped its first test unharmed.
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 by scoring the game's first goal. Sophomore Nora Bergman (Concord, MA) took a shot from the point and had it blocked by sophomore goaltender Caroline Hu (Cerritos, CA). First-year Maggie Melberg (Woody Creek, CO) was there to clean up the rebound, however, as she took advantage of a wide-open net by giving the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
Still on the power play, Middlebury increased its lead to 2-0 just 57 seconds later when senior captain Randi Dumont (Greene, ME) 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, junior tri-captain Kirsten Dier (Appleton, WI) was finally able to fend off the crowd of players and poke a shot past sophomore Alexi Bloom (Highland Park, IL), 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 only 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 (West Seneca, NY) 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 sophomore Megan Curry (Shorewood, MN) put home a rebound to make it a 3-2 game at the 7:28 mark. Curry's goal was her second of the weekend, both of which came in power-play fashion.
Amherst first-year Emily Vitale (Cheshire, CT) stormed up the right side during a 2-on-1 break and elected to blast a slap shot to the near post. Vitale's shot was right on target, but Bloom continued to dazzle fans by making a tremendous glove save. The Jeffs maintained their pressure, but Bloom kept making saves, and the visitors 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 junior Michelle McGann (New Berlin, WI) 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 over 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 senior tri-captain Lindsey Harrington (Westford, MA) 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 (Saint Paul, MN) playing the role of hero. McNally carried the puck along the boards with one defender at her side and two others nipping at her heels, but she somehow 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 pulled off the upset in dramatic fashion. Bloom finished with 52 saves on the day, while Hu stopped 20 shots.
Amherst tied a NESCAC record for goals scored in a tournament (16), while sophomore Courtney Hanlon (Fullerton, CA) tied the record for individual points in a tournament (6).