MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College women’s hockey coach Bill Mandigo said after his Panthers defeated visiting Trinity on Saturday, 3-1, that his team remains a work in progress.
His team’s half-dozen seniors are growing into leadership roles, its talented newcomers are learning about the commitment needed to succeed at the collegiate level, two freshmen expected to make an impact are injured and won’t return until after the holidays, and junior Lauren Greer — the Panthers’ leading scorer last season — has just returned to the lineup after an extended field hockey season.
In all, Mandigo said the Panthers have yet to fully gel. As evidence, he pointed to the difficulty they had in subduing a stubborn 1-3 Trinity team on Friday (a tough 2-1 decision) and Saturday.
“Last year when we got good it was because we outworked people,” Mandigo said. “And I just don’t think we’ve got that yet. And I know there’s a lot of stuff going on with exams and papers due, but that’s what they signed up for.”
That said, the Panthers are 5-0-1, and this past week were ranked No. 3 in NCAA Division III. They won a 4-1 decision at No. 8 Plattsburgh and a 0-0 tie on neutral ice with No. 4 Elmira.
Mandigo does see progress from game to game.
“I think we skated better than we did last night. There’s some good things,” he said. “It’s all part of the journey.”
And Mandigo also saw his team gradually take control during each of this past weekend’s home games, notably in Saturday’s matinee. After being outshot, 6-4, in the scoreless opening period, the Panthers gained a 10-5 edge in the second and then dominated the third period with a 17-4 shots margin.
Mandigo consistently used four lines and three defensive pairings, and said that depth would give his team an advantage all season.
“We played 18 kids, which not too many teams do,” he said.
But the Panthers did more than wear the Bantams down: They also started to move the puck better.
Mandigo said it started with more intelligent play off the puck and in the back, both good signs.
“We played a little bit smarter in the third period,” he said. “We played a little more disciplined defensively.”
In the scoreless first period on Friday, the Bantams disrupted the Panthers with a persistent forecheck and more often emerged with loose pucks. Still, the Panthers’ skill created better chances. Bantam goalie Alexa Pujol (28 saves) did well to stop Maggie Woodward in the slot on a feed from Madeline Joyce, as well as a wraparound bid from Sara Ugalde.
At the other end, Panther goalie Laura Pinsent (14 saves) denied Emily Kleidon’s shot from the right side after the Bantams forced a turnover.
The Panthers jumped on top early in the second period. Joyce sent Woodward down the right side on a two-on-one with Ugalde. Woodward skated into the right-wing circle and fed Ugalde out front, and she controlled and flipped the puck back inside the near post at 1:09.
Each team scored a power-play goal in the period, with Middlebury converting on one of four tries and Trinity on one of two. Pinsent preserved the lead by stopping Macauly Bauer on the first Bantam power play, and then the Panthers earned a man advantage.
But Pinsent was the first goalie challenged: She knocked aside a Kleidon wrister on a breakaway bid before the Panther took the lead later in the power play. Ugalde did the damage, netting her own rebound at 6:58 after taking a feed in the crease from Grace Waters, with Greer getting the second assist.
Trinity answered at 9:24. Payson Sword skated into the Panther zone with six seconds left in an ineffective power play and shot from the top of the right wing circle. It hit a defender’s stick and deflected past Pinsent.
The Panthers began to click on their next two power plays, and Pujol made two good stops each on Ugalde and Greer, Molly Downey tipped a shot just high, and Waters saw her shot from the doorstep denied.
The momentum carried over into the third period, when the Panthers earned three more power plays to one for the Bantams. Freshmen Emily Fluke and Hannah Bielawski, seniors Maria Bourdeau and Jamie Harisiades and Waters all created chances, while the defense limited the Bantams. Pinsent made one stop on Bauer during the Bantam power play, and defender Heather Marrison cleared to end the only real threat.
The pad goal came on a final-minute power play, when Bielawski poked home Joyce’s rebound on a play set up by Woodward.
On Saturday, Middlebury took a 1-0 lead 5:10 into the first period on Bielawski’s first career goal. Bielawski picked up a shot from Madison Styrbicki that went wide left, circled to the right face-off circle and snapped a wrister home.
Trinity tied the game at 11:30 on a goal by Lauren Glynn. In the second period, Panther freshman goalie Annabelle Jones (nine saves) made a key stop, reacting to a deflected shot from the point.
Ugalde scored the game-winner at 7:43 of the third, 25 seconds into a power play. A pass from Greer to Ugalde in the slot hit Ugalde’s skate and bounced off the post. Ugalde collared the puck and stuffed it past Pujol (21 saves).
Ultimately, Mandigo expects the Panthers to continue to improve as they adjust to new surroundings and new roles.
“Those freshmen are all pretty good players, but they’re not the six seniors who graduated from last year. In effect, we’ve lost that senior leadership. Not that these seniors don’t have it. It’s just ... still early for them to come to terms with what their responsibilities are,” Mandigo said. “And you’ve got these kids who you think might be better kids than the players who just graduated. And they might be. But they’re not there yet.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.