At first glance, Middleburyâ€™s 7-4-1 record jumps off the page at you and screams; â€˜What the heck is going on over there in Panther country?â€™
I mean this is the same Middlebury team that has never lost more than four games in a season during the nine years of NCAA sponsored D-III womenâ€™s ice hockey and has won more National Championships than any other D-III womenâ€™s program, right?
Well, yes that is correct but once you take a deeper look inside the Middlebury games and roster, youâ€™ll realize the Panthers arenâ€™t doing too shabby given the circumstances.
Middlebury lost its top scorers from last season and three of its top five in Molly Vitt (12-20-32), Annmarie Cellino (12-18-30), and Erika Nakamura (11-10-21). The Panthers also lost their leader on the blue line in RBK First Team All-American Randi Dumont.
â€œWeâ€™re a really young team playing a lot of freshman and sophomores,â€ Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo said. â€œAgainst Williams this weekend, weâ€™re going to being playing 11 freshmen and sophomores. Weâ€™re having problems putting the puck in the net right now but I think part of that is inexperience and youth. Weâ€™ll be okay. The kids are working hard and have a great attitude.â€
Teams like Elmira, Plattsburgh, and Amherst lost a lot of players as well from last season but theyâ€™ve all taken their fair share of bumps along the way so far in the 2009-2010 season, sans maybe Amherst who has only lost to Elmira.
Elmira got swept in Plattsburgh earlier in the season and also dropped a game to Manhattanville, but then the Soaring Eagles revitalized themselves by winning the Panther-Cardinal Classic in early January.
Plattsburgh has lost only once, but a 3-3 tie against Utica has left the Cardinals steaming a little bit heading into this weekendâ€™s huge showdown with R.I.T.
Itâ€™s not hard to distinguish that Middlebury has struggled the most out of the power five programs in the East so far this season but if you look at the Panthers losses a little closer, theyâ€™ve been in every game.
Middlebury started the season 5-0 and was riding high heading into the Panther-Cardinal Classic. Then they got the wind taken out of their sails a little bit after dropping a 3-2 overtime game to Elmira and a 4-1 loss to Plattsburgh where the game winning goal was scored with 2:30 minutes left and the final two goals were empty netters.
The Panthersâ€™ slide continued with a 2-1 overtime loss to Trinity, where the game winning goal was scored on a penalty shot. Middlebury rebounded with two straight wins over UMass-Boston and Wesleyan before taking just one point from top-ranked Amherst this past weekend.
Sure a loss is a loss no matter what way you slice it, but just because Middlebury has four losses doesnâ€™t mean you should fall asleep on the Panthers.
Stepping up so far this season for the Panthers have been two freshmen defensemen that have helped try and fill the skates of the Dumont.
Madison Styrbicki leads Middleburyâ€™s defensemen with three goals and four assists on the season. Heather Marrison has also accounted for four assists so far this season to tie for the team-lead for defensemen assists with Styrbicki.
They are both playing very well,â€ Mandigo said. â€œThey get a lot of ice time killing penalties and on the power play. They are in there at the end of periods and at the end of games and we think they are both very good players and having great freshmen years.
â€œWe had a meeting with all the freshmen Wednesday telling them itâ€™s time to stop thinking of themselves as freshmen and itâ€™s time to step up and play and I think they are two players we can count on to step up for us.â€
Middlebury didnâ€™t graduate everybody as they still have some important cogs from last yearâ€™s NCAA Semifinalist team that fell to Amherst.
Anna McNally is back and the junior forward has been scoring at a blistering pace. McNally has eight goals and 10 assists on the season to lead the team.
â€œAnna is doing a very good job leading us,â€ Mandigo said. â€œSheâ€™s an extremely talented player that skates well. Sheâ€™s very fast and may be the fastest player weâ€™ve ever had here. Even faster than (Emily) Quizon and thatâ€™s saying something. She works hard and plays great defense. She back checks and fore checks relentlessly.
â€œSheâ€™s working hard to lead the group along with the other seniors, we just donâ€™t have many upperclassmen so weâ€™re hoping the team gets better each day and itâ€™s a process as I always say.â€
Middlebury also returned both goaltenders from last yearâ€™s squad in Lani Wright and Lexi Bloom. They have continued to split time this season with Wright holding a 3-2-1 record, 1.04 GGA, and a .945 save percentage. Bloom is 3-2-0 on the season with 1.98 GGA and a .888 save percentage.
â€œThey are both playing pretty well,â€ Mandigo said. â€œI donâ€™t think weâ€™re giving up a lot goals and our defense has improved throughout the season. I think they are both pretty good goalies. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s been an issue from our defensive end, itâ€™s just been an issue putting the puck in the net this year.â€
Heading into a home and home series with Williams this weekend, Mandigo sits at 398 career victories in his 22 years of coaching at Middlebury. The next highest D-III womenâ€™s coach is Gustavus Adolphusâ€™ Mike Carroll with 225 wins.
â€œIt means Iâ€™m old,â€ Mandigo said with a laugh when asked about how it would feel to achieve 400 wins. â€œIâ€™ve been doing it longer than everybody else so that certainly makes a difference. You certainly donâ€™t get that many wins without having good players and weâ€™ve had a bunch of them. The success weâ€™ve had doesnâ€™t come without outstanding players and that makes my job a lot easier.â€
Mandigo said he expects two tough games with an improving Williams team that is 5-5-2 on the season already after winning just eight games last year.
â€œI think they have definitely improved this year,â€ Mandigo said. â€œItâ€™s a little bit of a different game now because my daughter goes to Williams so that makes it a little bit of extra special game.
â€œThey work hard and have some good freshmen that have come in and produced. I think Sara Plunkett is one of the best goaltenders in the league so that will certainly make it tough for us. They should be two really good games, but I hope we can find a way to put one or a couple past Plunkett.â€
Around The Country
Once again, as seemingly every weekend there are a few match-ups that Iâ€™ll be keeping my eye on, as should you for important NCAA implications.
First up, the Plattsburgh/RIT rivalry will be renewed this weekend as the two ECAC West powerhouses meet at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena in Plattsburgh for a pair of games. Plattsburgh can basically wrap-up the ECAC West with a sweep or at least three points from the Tigers. Even two points will give Plattsburgh a stranglehold on the top spot since the Cardinals swept Elmira earlier in the season.
Out West, Wis.-Stevens Point and Wis.- Superior will renew their rivalry with a pair of games at Wis.-Superiorâ€™s Wessman Arena. The Yellow jackets are 7-1-1 in their last nine games including wins over Gustavus Adolphus, St. Thomas, and Wis.-River Falls.
Wis.-Stevens Point is 9-4-1 on the season and is coming off two blowout wins against first year program Marian. Before that though, the Pointers had a three game winless streak tying Lake Forest once and then losing to the Foresters and dropping a game to Gustavus Adolphus as well.
One other game Iâ€™ll be keeping my eye on is Salve Regina hosting Manhattanville on Saturday. Salve is a very quiet 10-3-3 on the season with its only losses coming to Potsdam, Holy Cross, and Trinity. The Seahawks have tied Norwich and beating UMass-Boston and will have an excellent chance to make another statement and put their name in the mix for the ECAC East crown with UMass-Boston, Manhattanville, and Norwich with a win over the Valiants.