Panthers cement dynasty with fourth straight title |
By Sarah Jones
When it was all said and done, was there ever any doubt?
The Middlebury women's hockey team survived a tough scare from Scared Heart en route to their fourth consecutive ECAC Championship this past Saturday at Kenyon Arena. With their 5-2 season-ending victory over the Pioneers, the Panthers extended their undefeated ECAC record to 72 games over the past four years. They have won every League Championship since the ECAC's inception in 1995-96.
Sacred Heart was the fifth seed coming into the ECAC tournament. They knocked off third-seeded Wesleyan 5-2 last Wednesday night to advance to the semi-finals on Saturday. Then they shocked second seed Bowdoin 4-0 to earn a spot in the Championship game.
Earning a first-round bye as the tournament's top seed, Middlebury needed only one game to advance to Sunday's championship game. The Panthers defeated sixth seed RPI, 4-0, in Saturday's semi-final game. Two goals from Michelle Labbe '01 helped to seal the win for the Panthers. First-year goalie Megan Hutchinson had seven saves in the shutout for the Panthers.
The Pioneers came out in the first period and shocked Middlebury on their home ice. Lauren Wiggins' score five minutes into the game put Sacred Heart up 1-0.
"[Sacred Heart] came out ready to play and played so well at the beginning of the game," Middlebury senior Suzanne Chepren said afterwards. "Sacred Heart improved such a long way from the beginning of the season."
Sacred Heart was high on confidence heading into Sunday's championship game, riding the success of their previous wins. The Pioneer's play also impressed Middlebury head coach Bill Mandigo. "They came in excited and prepared," he said. "They came in thinking that they could beat us and win the championship. Our team was prepared, but I think Sacred Heart was more ready to play."
"They took us by surprise," Labbe added. "When they went up by a goal we knew we had to find a way to work harder."
Labbe, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, helped to bring the Panthers back into the game. Late in the first period with the Pioneers still up 1-0, Middlebury jumped on the scoreboard. Sylvia Ryan '00 made a beautiful pass to Labbe in front of the net, who then dumped the puck back to Ryan, who was set up perfectly in front of the net for the goal. It was Ryan's twenty-third goal of the season and tied the game up at 1-1.
Middlebury did not hesitate to come right back at the Pioneers after their goal. From a face-off less than a minute later, first year Catherine Elkins, who was set up in the center of the ice, took the puck off a pass and buried it in the back of the goal. Christa McDougall '00 and Kelly Hase '00 shared in the assist.
Sacred Heart, shocked by Middlebury's two quick scores, rallied to come back before the end of the period. The Pioneer's Lori Hendra tied up the score at 2-2 with 1:29 left in the first period. The teams went into the locker room with the score remaining at 2-2.
"We had to take a step back after the first period," Coach Mandigo said. "We relaxed and thought about what we knew we had to do [during intermission]."
Middlebury came back into the second period with a determined outlook. The first four minutes of the second period were crucial. Middlebury played down a man for the first four minutes after back to back penalties. Great defense, goal-tending, and all-around team play kept Sacred Heart off of the scoreboard.
Back to full strength, it was Middlebury took control. They scored first in the second period. Senior Janice O'Neil scored the go-ahead goal. She put the puck away from right in front of the goal to make the score 3-2.
Catherine Pullins '00 added another score later in the second period. Off of the rebound on a shot by Ryan, Pullins put the score in the left side of the net to put Middlebury up 4-2.
Sacred Heart had little answer to the barrage of goals by the Panthers. They were held scoreless during the last two periods behind Senior goalie Kristin Hackmann. Hackmann made her last game as a Middlebury Panther memorable with 17 saves in goal.
"We had to work hard against Sacred Heart," Hackmann said. "The win was that much sweeter."
Middlebury added an insurance goal in the third period with a score by Labbe in the top corner of the net, making the final championship score 5-2.
"This game was a great way to end the season and for the seniors to finish their careers," Coach Mandigo said after the game.
Seniors on the team echoed Coach Mandigo. "It is remarkable and unreal," an exuberant Hackmann said. "This is what I will remember more than anything else."
"We have worked so hard all season," Chepren said. "I can't think of any better way to go. This is a classy, confident, non-cocky team that I am so proud to be a part of."
The Seniors end their careers at Middlebury with an astounding 72-0 league record and four Championship banners. The 5-2 victory was not a bad way to go out at all.
Ryan amd Elkins were named to the All Tournament Team.
Middlebury players captured four of the six spots on the ECAC's All-League team. Labbe, who lead the league with 27 goals, and Ryan (23 goals) were chosen as forwards. Defensively, Elkins, the top defensive scorer in the league, and Pullins, who was awarded her third All-ECAC distinction, were also recognized for exceptional play on the ice.