ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Once again, the Middlebury Panthers showed the hockey world that they are the class of the field.
Saturday night, Middlebury won its second consecutive AWCHA Division III national championship, 6-0, over Gustavus Adolphus. Megan Hutchinson registered the shutout, stopping all 24 shots.
The Panthers overcame an early two-man disadvantage, slowly took control of the game and put their stamp on the title with a goal just prior to the buzzer ending the second period.
That finish, however, was hardly obvious after the opening minutes of play.
“Gustavus outplayed us in the first,” Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo said.
A lot of that was due to Gustavus having a two man advantage for 1:24. Though the Gusties controlled most of the power play, and had a fair number of scoring chances, Middlebury was able to thwart them.
“That was a really big moment, and our kids killed it off,” said Mandigo.
Middlebury was able to take advantage of a Gustavus mistake when Catherine Elkins grabbed a turnover in front of the net, leaving her with the puck and only the goalie to beat. She didn’t miss, giving the Panthers the early lead.
Gustavus continued to apply pressure, but a late goal on the power play by Middlebury enabled the Panthers to take a 2-0 lead into intermission. With 31 seconds left in the period, Angela Kapus picked up a rebound off a shot by Erin Neil, and scooped it in.
Kapus said, “The first power-play goal really opened it up for us.”
Still, Gustavus coach Mike Carroll wasn’t worried. “After the first period, I thought we were okay. I felt once we got into the neutral zone and started forechecking, we did fine.”
However, it only took 1:51 of the second period for Gustavus to rethink that. Again on the power play — only the second it would get all night — Middlebury scored a near-identical goal to the previous power play. A rebound of Erin Neil’s shot came out to Kapus, who shot it over the outstretched legs of the goaltender.
Now, it was 3-0, and the uphill battle for Gustavus seemed insurmountable.
“Once we get ahead by a couple,” said Mandigo, “we’re usually okay.”
Just to make sure, Michelle Labbe made it 4-0 at the 6:21 mark. Assists went to the Neil twins, Erin and Amber.
The goal that really “put the knife in their back,” according to Mandigo, came just before the buzzer sounded to end the second.
Kristin Reid rushed the puck into the zone on a two on one with Amber Neil to her right for a textbook two-on-one. The players remained as wide as possible, and Reid waited for the defenseman to lean towards her before passing. Amber Neil received the pass and paused.
“The puck was up on the edge,” explained Amber Neil. However, the clock was rapidly running out. “It felt like time froze.”
She finally shot it, a blast right by the goalie. The buzzer sounded, and Middlebury went into the locker room up 5-0.
The third period started out with more of the same. Labbe, the hardest-working player on the ice, scored a typical Labbe goal. She picked up a loose puck by the blue line, skated down the left side by the defense, cut across in front of the ice and shot it near side into the net. At the 3:21 mark, it was now 6-0.
It was a formality from there, finalized by the Middlebury players celebrating the final buzzer of the season.
Despite the domination of Middlebury over the years, the team was still surprised by the outcome of this game. As Mandigo said, “Gustavus played hard. They didn’t deserve it to be 6-0.”
Carroll was gracious in defeat. “They’re a good team. We didn’t quit out there,” he said. “I’m really proud of our players. We showed a lot of class — to be number-two in the nation is a successful season.”
The Gustavus players also showed sportsmanship rarely, if ever, seen before. As each of the Middlebury players accepted their individual award, a different Gustavus player skated up to offer congratulations.
Gustavus ends their season with an overall record of 23-6-1.
Middlebury ended its season with a record of 23-1-1, a 128-game unbeaten streak in Division III play (127-0-1), and most importantly, a second consecutive national championship.
For Labbe, a senior finishing her days at Middlebury it was fitting. “The only way I wanted to end it,” she said.
The All-Tournament Team:
F — Michelle Labbe (Middlebury)
F — Angela Kapus (Middlebury)
F — Becca Levine (Gustavus Adolphus)
D — Amber Neil (Middlebury)
D — Sarah Carpenter (Middlebury)
G — Missie Meemken (St. Mary’s)