Off to NEHC Championship

They say it’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season, and Norwich proved that old adage to be true on Saturday in Northfield, Vermont’s Kreitzberg Arena, falling 1-0 to the Castleton University Spartans in the New England Hockey Conference semi-final round after a defensive dogfight that produced no score for the first 50 minutes. The No. 2 seeded Norwich Cadets had previously bested the Spartans 4-3 and 6-0 this season.

The game began with Norwich’s high-powered offense assaulting sophomore goalie Kirsten Dicicco with a barrage of shots on goal, a theme that would continue throughout the game. Dicicco finished with 41 saves.

“Just insane,” said Coach Tim McAuliffe after the game of his standout net boss. “She’s the type of goalie who rises to the occasion always…I can’t say enough about Kirsten, she’s unbelievable.”

“I always come into this game expecting a lot of shots and just weathering the storm,” Dicicco said. “I can’t really take a lot of the credit, I gotta give it up to my defensemen blocking all these shots.” The Lowell, Massachusetts native noted that practices leading up to the game were dotted with extra shots on goal and an increased focus on her ability to stop the puck. More of the same can be expected this coming week, as a no. 1 seeded Elmira Soaring Eagles team awaits them in the final round of the NEHC playoffs.

“They’re a real smart team, really strong offensively…I think if we play like we did today, no one can stop us,” Dicicco said.

On the offensive side of the puck, Castleton rifled in 22 shots on goal, while Norwich goalie Alexa Berg weathered a storm of her own, saving all but the one that came with 6:33 left to play in the game on a power play, when the Cadets lost junior forward Mikah Baptiste to the box for a hooking penalty, and Castleton’s offense stepped up in a big way with forwards Courtney Gauthier and Darby Palisi.

“I’m on cloud nine right now,” Palisi said after her second game-winning goal in as many weeks. “We played for the alumni just as much as playing for us, we played for our coach, we played for everybody around us.”

Now a junior, Palisi played under Gauthier’s mentorship as a freshman and now serves as her assistant captain.

“She guided me through so much…I’m just so happy to be able to play another game with her,” Palisi said.

“We knew it was gonna be whoever was willing to go to the net and she’s always willing…Courtney threw that puck far post and Darby going to the net like always. We knew it was gonna be ‘get to the net and take away the goalie’s eyes and see what happens,’” McAuliffe said of the game -winning power play.

The Spartans carry a 15-9-2 record into Elmira next week, who at 23-2-1 sat as the no. 1 seed without a loss in conference this season. Their impressive offense put up six or more goals in seven different games this season.

“I’m not looking forward to the drive,” laughed sophomore forward Alex Johnson, referencing the four plus hour ride from the Green Mountains to just southeast of Rochester. “I think we can pull through, it’s gonna be tough, just like today. I think we can do it.”

For Castleton, the championship game berth marks their first since 2019, where they lost 6-0 to Norwich under former Spartan head coach Mike Venezia. Before that, the Spartans played in the 2015 NEHC Championship under Steph Moberg, losing 1-0 at Norwich under the old ECAC East banner.

“Today was pretty sick. We wanted to play with all heart…at the end of the day our hearts showed and we took the dub,” said junior forward Sam Lawler. “We’ve played tough games with [Elmira] this season already, I think we’re just gonna go in with the same mentality: nothing to lose.”

Castleton has been downed by Elmira twice this season, first in a 3-0 loss in December, and more recently a 1-0 loss at Spartan arena on Feb. 5. But, they say it’s hard to beat a time three times in the same season.

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