MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Amherst got the last laugh of its budding rivalry with Middlebury this season as the Lady Jeffs downed the Panthers 3-2 in the second national semifinal at the 2009 NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championship.
After falling to Middlebury, 4-3 in overtime two weeks ago in the NESCAC championship game, Amherst picked up the most important win to date on the heels of Tarasai Kargea’s three-point game.
Karega scored the first goal of the game a little over five minutes into the first period on what turned into a breakaway after she caught the Middlebury defense off-guard.
“I came off the bench and Lindsay Harrington made a perfect pass in transition,” Karega said. “I was able to catch the pass and have a jump on the defense. I love to catch the puck in transition and was able to split the defense. The goalie came out to challenge and I just went to the backhand and was able to put it in. It was exciting to get us up a goal early.”
Amherst head coach Jim Plumer said the team had made it a goal to score two goals in the first period and get off to better starts this season.
“One of our goals for the entire season was to score in the first period,” Plumer said. “We’ve had about 15 goals more in the first period this season than last year. It’s great to get the other team on their heels early.”
Amherst continued to do just that as with three minutes remaining Julia Koch notched the second power-play goal of the game for the Jeffs with assists from Karega and Stephanie Clegg.
Koch threw a wrist shot on net from the top of the circle and Middlebury goalie Lexi Bloom was screened by traffic in front. She never saw the shot until it was behind her in the back of the net.
Amherst carried the 2-0 lead into the first intermission. However, Middlebury rallied around its seniors in the second period and Molly Vitt got the Panthers on the board. Vitt put home a loose rebound on the weak side before Amherst goalie; Krystyn Elek was able to recover. The goal was her 11th of the season on the power play off assists from Ashley Bairos and Grace Waters.
Middlebury fed off the momentum of Vitt’s goal and used a strong fore check to bottle up Amherst in the Jeffs’ defensive zone. However, the Panthers were unable to push across the next goal.
Instead, Amherst took the momentum back on a power-play goal from Megan Curry. Curry was able to knock home a loose puck for her seventh goal of the season off a rush created by Karega. Karega used her speed once again to cause problems for the Middlebury defense and got just enough on a backhand shot that Bloom couldn’t handle it cleanly. Curry found the loose rebound before Bloom to knock it into the back of the net and give the Jeffs their two-goal lead back.
Middlebury’s Annmarie Cellino cut the lead back to one with seven minutes to go in the game but that’s as close as the Panthers would get and they fell short by a goal. Cellino’s 12th goal of the season came on a nice feed from Heather McCormack in the slot. She then beat Elek to her right side for the fifth and final power-play goal of the game.
“I thought both teams played great defense,” said Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo. “We played 60 minutes and there were five power-play goals. In 21 years of this, I don’t remember seeing five goals and all of them being power-play goals.”
Coming into the game, the penalty kill was a concern for the Panthers, who ranked 30th in the nation at just 83 percent.
“Do you have a penalty kill for us? We could use one right now,” Mandigo said with a laugh. “We worked more on it this year than we have in previous years. Sometimes it’s a bad bounce or you’re out of position. Amherst did a good job of capitalizing.”
Plumer said that Saturday’s national semifinal was another outstanding hockey game with Middlebury.
“We’ve had four great games with this season,” Plumer said. “Even the games we shut them out in were not really indicative of how the play went. We thought it was going to be a game where it came down to who made the most of their opportunities and we did that so we’re pleased.”
Krystyn Elek made 17 saves to pick up her 15th win of the season for Amherst. Lexi Bloom stopped 15 shots in the loss for Middlebury. Elek said she was especially excited about the win because she didn’t get to play in the NESCAC championship due to being sick.
“It was a big game for us to win coming off a couple weeks ago and losing to Middlebury in the NESCAC championship game,” Elek said. “Middlebury is my favorite team; we have a strong and healthy rivalry with them with a lot of respect for each other. We wanted to come back and take it to them and play our game and come out with the win.”
Amherst improved to 23-5-0 on the season and moves into its first national championship game where they will meet Elmira at 7 p.m. at Kenyon Arena. Middlebury dropped to 19-4-4 on the season and will play Wisconsin-River Falls in the third-place game at 3:30 p.m.
Amherst will have the opportunity to beat every team that has accounted for the seven NCAA Division III national championships in their playoff run this season.
“We’ve played Elmira three times in the last two years,” Plumer said. “All have been one-goal games. They are a very talented team with great goaltending that is playing hard for their new coach. What more would you want than to beat storied programs?
“It’s certainly a thrill that you can always measure yourself by these top programs. It’s a nice feeling to know we belong among the best.”