Tufts ends season in NESCAC semifinals

The Jumbos' offense challenged the Lord Jeffs' much-vaunted defense. Caroline Geiling / The Tufts Daily

Tufts’ (9-15-2) postseason run concluded at Orr Rink with a close 3-2 loss to No. 9 Amherst (20-4-2). The Lord Jeffs, seeded second in the NESCAC, will advance to the tournament finals for the second straight year, where they will host the fourth seeded Williams Ephs. Even though the Jumbos came up short in their search for a NESCAC title, this season was a step in the right direction for a team that finished last in the NESCAC last year.

Shocking the Div. III hockey world, Tufts knocked off No. 1-seeded Trinity in the quarterfinals to earn a spot in the NESCAC semifinals. Tufts hoped to carry its momentum to its game against Amherst, but Amherst prevailed.

“Both teams made very few mistakes, and Amherst was able to capitalize on one more chance than we were,” senior forward Bill Sellers told the Daily in an email.

Leading shots on goal 12-6 in the first period, Amherst put pressure on sophomore goalie Mason Pulde early. Senior forward Mike Rowbotham struck first for the Lord Jeffs at 5:53 off a clean assist from senior defenseman Aaron Deutsch. The Jumbos, however, struck back at 14:28 when senior forward Tyler Voigt. who had been screening senior goalie Danny Vitale, punched in a rebound. Junior tri-captain forward Stewart Bell and senior tri-captain defenseman Blake Edwards were credited with assists.

“It was a fairly even game except for the fact that we never had the lead and we really wanted to play with the lead,” coach Brian Murphy said.

Amherst boasts one of the top defenses in the country and Vitale’s goals against average of 1.75 leads the NESCAC. As a result, Tufts hoped to jump out to an early lead in order to avoid playing from behind, but Rowbotham’s goal quashed that strategy.

“Amherst is the best defensive team in the country, and we tried to do things around their net to create some more offense,” Murphy said. “I thought that in the third period we had some quality chances and [Vitale] really played well for them. He’s a great goalie — you look at his stats and what he does for them — but they’ve also got a great system.”

Despite never trailing on the scoreboard, the Lord Jeffs were far from comfortable against the upstart Jumbos. Even after Amherst built a two-point lead in the second period, there was a sense that Tufts could rally. Deutsch fired a point shot that senior forward Andrew Fenwick tipped past Pulde at 4:32 in the second, and then junior forward Conor Brown netted a third goal for the Lord Jeffs off an assist from first-year forward David White slightly over six minutes later. White was named NESCAC rookie of the year for this season as well as receiving an all-NESCAC first team selection.

“I think we played well,” Murphy said. “We worked hard. The second period, we kind of got away from what our game plan was a little bit. I think we were nervous and feeling the pressure of being down by a goal, and then we gave up another one.”

The Jumbos, desperately clinging to their season, blitzed the Lord Jeffs in the third period, outshooting them 16-9. Vitale and the Amherst defense turned down many good chances, but at 10:19, Tufts caught a break. Sophomore forward Conal Lynch finished off an Edwards pass to cut the lead to one.

With almost 10 minutes left to play and down one, Tufts had a chance to tie the game and dramatically swing momentum from scoring the last goal. The Lord Jeffs’ defense, however, as resilient as ever, refused to break again. Amherst broke out on a fast break with roughly 3:30 left in the game that ended with first-year forward Brian Brown knocking the goal off its moorings. The referees felt Brown had done so intentionally to save the goal and sent him to the box for a delay of game penalty. The Jumbos were then forced on the penalty kill, and despite preventing the Lord Jeffs from scoring, they lost valuable time for evening the score.

“We wouldn’t have been in that game without Brian Brown,” Murphy said. “He led our team in scoring, but he’s also a freshman. You know, we killed the penalty off and the last minute we had a few chances, but they didn’t go. I don’t really think it changed the game.”

The Jumbos set their sights on the NESCAC championship at the beginning of the season, a lofty goal for a team that finished in the conference’s cellar last season. Despite not reaching their goal, Murphy is proud of his team for reaching the semifinals.

“Regardless of whether we achieved our goals we built that bridge for the next group,” Murphy said. “We established a culture of winning that I don’t think we’ve had with other groups. The guys were really down after the game, and that’s a good sign because it means they wanted to win and they thought they should have won.”

With the season over, the team can still look back on the individual accomplishments of its senior defenseman, Blake Edwards. Edwards earned all-NESCAC honors last week after he was named to the second team, marking the second such honor of his career.

“I think he should have been on the first team, but that was full of guys from Amherst and Trinity, which makes sense because they finished first and second,” Murphy said. “Blake is very competitive, very athletic. People don’t see how hard he practices. He played a lot of this season with a very bad hand. He went through a stretch of a few weeks where he couldn’t shoot a puck. I think most importantly his effort in practice is what really stands out, it makes everyone around him better.”

For seniors like Edwards and Sellers, the season represented the culmination of four years of hard work.

“Although right now it stings losing in the semi-finals, it’s been a fun season, certainly an improvement over the last two years,” Sellers wrote. “Although we maybe could’ve had some more regular season success, I think I can look back and say this has been one of the best season’s in Tufts hockey history. It’s tough to describe, but a lot of sacrifices are made into the building of a hockey career, not just by you but your parents as well, and to have it end in this way was definitely bittersweet.”