Middlebury a contender again

After qualifying for the first eight NCAA Tournaments, Middlebury missed the NCAA postseason for the first time last year.

The Panthers have been a model of consistency under coach Bill Mandigo since he took over in 1988, including winning an unprecedented three straight national championships.

Middlebury has only had one losing season during his 23 seasons at the helm of the program, and before last season, hadn’t lost more than four games in a season since 1996-1997.

Although Mandigo became the first coach in NCAA women’s hockey history to record 400 victories last season, the Panthers finished 16-7-3 and lost to Trinity in four overtimes in the NESCAC semifinals.

“There are more teams that have hockey now,” Mandigo said. “The talent has spread out. It’s good for the game and women’s hockey. It was disappointing not getting in last year, but honestly we didn’t deserve to get in and it worked out the way it did.”

This season, Middlebury has set out to try and start a new streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, but the Panthers have run into their fair share of bumps in the road so far.

“We’re a work in progress,” Mandigo said. “We’ve got a good bunch of girls who work hard and want to do well. I think we’ve gotten a little better as each week has gone. We’ve had some ups and downs, but they’ve still got a great attitude and they are in it for the long haul.”

One noticeable difference from the Middlebury teams of the past has been the lack of a standout goal scorer, along the lines of a Michelle Labbe, Angela Kapus, Emily Quizon, or Annmarie Cellino.

Instead, the Panthers’ leading scorer at the moment has 12 points with another at 11 points and then six players all tied with 10.

“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Mandigo said of the scoring production. “In some ways it’s not bad because there are a lot of people that have to take responsibility for what goes on out there on the ice. At the same time, not having a [Emily] Quizon or [Annmarie] Cellino changes the way you approach things.

“We’ve got a lot of depth, but we just haven’t had anyone that has been truly outstanding so far. But, that doesn’t mean the kids aren’t working hard and giving a great effort.”

One aspect that has changed for the better for Middlebury this year has been the emergence of Alexi Bloom as the No. 1 goaltender for the Panthers this year.

Traditionally, Middlebury has rotated a two-goalie tandem throughout the season. However, this year the senior goalie from Highland Park, Ill. has taken the bull by the horns and asserted herself as the clear-cut No. 1 goalie.

Bloom is 9-2-1 entering the weekend with a 0.95 goals against average and a .953 save percentage to go along with a nation-leading six shutouts.

“She’s been outstanding, and has a great deal of confidence right now,” Mandigo said of Bloom. “She works very hard and the kids believe in her, which I think is a big deal with goalies when the team feels comfortable. She’s not afraid to get on people when they aren’t doing what they should be doing and she just exudes confidence out there.”

This weekend, Middlebury travels to Wesleyan on Friday and then will go to Hartford for a showdown with Trinity on Saturday.

“We’ve played Trinity four times in the last two years, and three of the four have gone to overtime,” Mandigo said. “We had one game end of a penalty shot in overtime with no time left on the clock and then last year’s four-overtime game in the NESCAC playoffs. It’s two pretty good teams that are evenly matched. [Andy] McPhee has done a great job with that team, and they are well coached.”

The Bantams have hit a bump in the road themselves with a 1-1-2 record in their last four games. Last weekend, Trinity lost 1-0 to Colby and then tied Bowdoin 2-2.

“Kim Weiss is one of the better players in the country,” Mandigo said. “Komarek is excellent and can really shoot it and he’s found another good goalie. We’ve just got to go out, battle and try to put the puck in the net and then see what happens. ”

In typical Trinity/Middlebury fashion, last time out, the Bantams and Panthers skated to a 1-1 draw on Jan. 8 at Middlebury’s Chip Kenyon ’85 Arena.