Middlebury had lost to PSU this past season.
Middlebury Athletics

In order to beat top-ranked and undefeated Plattsburgh State on Friday, the Middlebury Panthers were always going to have to rely not only on their feet, but also their brains.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened. PSU had Division III’s best offense, best defense and best power play this season, but Middlebury used a very intelligent and effective game to win 4-1 and give the Cardinals their first loss of the 2012-13 campaign.

The Panthers upped their record on the season to 20-7-2 and will play either undefeated Gustavus Adolphus or Elmira in Saturday evening’s national championship game.

PSU fell to 26-1-2 on the season and will play the loser of Friday’s second national semifinal in Saturday’s third-place game.

PSU had beaten the Panthers in a pair of tight games earlier this season, but, when the Cardinals came out Friday and played their usual style, Middlebury figured out a way to handle them.

Good zonal marking and keeping Plattsburgh’s attackers along the wall and away from the middle led to scoring opportunities for the Panthers at the other end of the ice. In the end, Middlebury’s ability to transition from one to the other and back again did the trick.

“We talk about keeping the puck on the outside and keeping bodies away from the front of the net as best we can, and I think our defensemen have done a pretty good job the last couple of weeks,” Middlebury head coach Bill Mandigo said.

“I thought [our players] played very, very well – probably their best game of the year – against Norwich last week,” Mandigo said, referring to the Panthers’ 3-2 overtime win against the Cadets Mar. 9 in the teams’ NCAA quarterfinal game, “And I think they did it again.”

Middlebury found itself up 2-0 through Friday’s first two periods, thanks to goals from senior forwards Lauren Greer and sophomore forward Emily Fluke. Both goals came against the run of play – PSU outshot the Panthers 28-23 but had the majority of the game’s scoring chances – but Middlebury sophomore goaltender Annabelle Jones stopped what her teammates couldn’t during the first 40 minutes.

The Cardinals finally got onto the board 3:07 into the third period when Ali Vakos sent a perfect saucer pass to Chelsea Van Glahn out front to tip in past Jones. The Panthers rode out the storm from there, though, and eventually added Downey’s goal and an empty-netter late by Maggie Woodward.

Middlebury also had to deal with an injury to first-line center Sara Ugalde, whose status for Saturday’s championship game is unknown. In the end, though, Mandigo felt as though the game was much closer than the score suggests.

“We’ve had three really close games with them in a row,” Mandigo said, “They’re always tight and great games, and in the end this was another one-goal game.

“The score indicates that it was a 4-1 game, but I come out of it feeling it was another one-goal battle game between Middlebury and Plattsburgh like it always is.”

In the end, although Plattsburgh played a solid game, won 50 of the game’s 73 faceoffs and out-chanced the Panthers in front of goal, it was Middlebury’s ability to battle for loose pucks and intelligent play on defense that saw the Panthers through to Saturday’s final.

“We came out for the third period with the idea that we needed to get the next one and then Ugalde got hurt and kind of took the wind out of our sails for a bit, but the kids regrouped again and figured it out,” Mandigo said.

"We played some different kids in different spots, and then Molly got the goal to make it three, and then it was just [down to] playing good defense in front of Annabelle [Jones].”