WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In the final minutes of the third period against No. 2 Middlebury on Sunday, Elmira sophomore Stefanie McLean was flattened on the ice after getting her feet taken out from under her. But three minutes into overtime, it was McLean who stood tall after netting the overtime game-winner in No. 1 Elmira’s 3-2 triumph in the battle of the nation’s top two D-III teams.
McLean’s goal came off a lucky bounce when she threw the puck in front from behind, and it deflected off nearby traffic into the net.
“I didn’t even think it went in,” McLean said. “I was just trying to get it to the front of the net. I went behind [the goalie's] back and saw it was in there, and I got pretty excited.”
The goal meant two losses in as many weekends for the defending NCAA champion Panthers, who had held USCHO’s No. 1 ranking prior to that stretch. They put on a good show in defeat.
“It’s tough to lose on a fluke goal,” said Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo. “But it was a great game, up and down. I’m assuming it was fun to watch because it was fun to be a part of it.”
Prior to the game-winner, four of Elmira’s top players had been slow to recover from hits and spills. The slowest was McLean, who slammed hard into the rear boards and felt her back tighten up. She stayed out of the game for the next few minutes as a precaution, and she was ready to go again before the overtime.
“I don’t think anyone on our bench let her [sit],” said Elmira coach Paul Nemetz-Carlson. “[Three other players] went down, and those guys played every other shift in the third period. I don’t think they missed a shift. They sat on the bench, trainer says okay, and then it’s all guts.”
With the victory, Elmira was certain it would be hosting its upcoming ECAC tournament.
“We were pretty injured and then our team got pretty pumped up,” McLean said. “To put it away and get to host ECACs, it means a lot to me and to the team.”
The nation’s top scorer Laura Hurd was the creative force behind both of Elmira’s goals in regulation. Just four minutes into the game, Hurd faked out a defender and walked in alone on net. Panthers goalie Kate Kogut stopped the first shot, but Lindsay Palmer buried the rebound for the 1-0 lead.
Middlebury tied it up at one exactly 10 minutes later when defenseman Tania Kenny found a seam in the Elmira defensive coverage and connected with team-leading scorer Emily Quizon for the deflection home.
Elmira took the lead again early in the second period, when Hurd was given room to operate on the end line where she’s always been dangerous. The Eagle senior fed the puck in front for Charissa Gawant’s finish and a 2-1 lead.
“One of the great success stories of our program is Laura Hurd,” Nemetz-Carlson said. “She wants the puck. She wants to be out there when the game is on the line, and to watch her play is fun. Every time she’s on the ice, she’s dangerous.”
After taking the lead in the second period, Elmira got away from its game and Middlebury controlled the run of play. The Panthers made the Eagles pay when All-American Lorna Gifis circled around in front and wristed the puck through the Elmira shell into the net
“Our team does very well in our offensive attack mode,” Nemetz-Carlson said. “When we go into a shell, we tend to run around and get nervous and anxious, like any team does. Our answer is to continue to go–don’t change your style.”
The third period was the most up-and-down of the game as each team had opportunities at even strength and on the power play. Middlebury held the shot advantage for the game.
“Sometimes it bounces your way, sometimes it bounces the other way,” Mandigo said. “I don’t know how many shots we had, but I think we had a lot. We just didn’t finish.”
This season’s Elmira team includes 13 seniors who started the program and won the sport’s first two NCAA D-III titles. Underclassmen like McLean who have yet to win the title are doing their best to let the program’s trailblazers go out in style as well as taste the glory for themselves.
“It’s nice to have our sophomores step up big in big games,” Nemetz-Carlson said.