Tufts (6-7-5) fell 4-0 to Williams (13-4-1) on Frida,y and allowed Middlebury (6-7-5) to tie up Saturday’s contest at three goals apiece at the very last minute in what proved to be a frustrating weekend away for the Jumbos.
“If we can get three goals or more in our games, with our defensive core, our penalty kill and our goaltending, it gives us a real good chance to pick up points,” coach Patrick Norton said. “It’s our focus pretty much since we’ve come back from break to really emphasize our offensive skills…I do think we have made positive strides in that direction.”
In the first period against Middlebury, Tufts first-year defenseman Ryan Wolter fired a shot at sophomore goalie Stephen Klein who managed to deflect the puck. Fellow rookie David Lackner collected the rebound, managing to finish the power play and earn Tufts a 1-0 lead at 5:56. Tufts led shots on goal 14-10 through the first period.
The Middlebury Panthers responded early in the second, when junior goalie Mason Pulde deflected sophomore Panther forward Mark McLellan’s shot and senior forward Jake Charles snuck the rebound past Pulde.
The Jumbos regained the lead when senior co-captain Brian Ouellette utilized a screen and found string behind Klein from the left point. Neither team was able to score again in the second, and four penalties forced the Jumbos to spend the remainder of the period fending off shots while shorthanded.
But just three minutes into a back-and-forth third period, junior Panther forward Mike Najjar flicked a backhand into the net. Middlebury’s senior tri-captain forward Evan Neugold and sophomore forward Vincent Gisonti assisted on the play.
The game was tied up at 2-2 when Charles was called for interference at 6:34, gifting the Jumbos their second power play of the game. Sophomore forward Chad Goldberg took full advantage of the opportunity, sending the puck across the goal line with a backhanded shot at 6:59. Ouellette and first-year forward Clay Berger assisted. The Jumbos were highly efficient on power plays, scoring on both opportunities, and on the other side of the ice, they held the Panthers to one power play goal despite six tries.
“[The power play] has improved a lot,” Coach Norton said. “I think our entrance into the zone has been excellent all year. The things I liked recently, but especially over the last few games: I think our puck movement has been significantly quicker, I think we’ve gotten good net front presence from Clay Berger and David Lackner and I think we’ve attacked the net well. [Sophomore forward Nick] Flanagan, and [sophomore forward Brian] Brown and Goldberg, I think that our little guys have done a great job attacking the net, and to cap that off I think our defensemen have done a better job getting pucks through and getting pucks in position.”
“We take a lot of pride in our penalty kill,” Brown said. “It’s a very different strategy from what other teams do. They sit back and try to block shots and put sticks in the lane — we just send a guy. Every time they touch the puck, we have a guy going at them.”
With sixteen minutes gone by in the third, the Jumbos’ Brown and the Panthers’ senior defenseman Terrance Goguen were called for slashing. Playing five-on-five hockey with a 3-2 lead, the Jumbos needed to hold on for just four more minutes. But first-year Jumbo defenseman Nick Abbene was called for holding and the Panthers went on the offensive.
“We’ve had games where we haven’t taken a lot of penalties and we’ve been very disciplined and done an outstanding job,” Norton said. “[The penalties] rear their head sometimes in key situations, so we’ve certainly talked to the team about it and we’ve had to make some tough decisions in terms of lineup.”
Senior Panther forward Brendan McGovern finished off Neugold’s inspired late push to tie the game at 3-3 with just over two and a half minutes remaining. Neither team could generate a decent scoring opportunity in overtime, leaving the contest as a tie. Pulde finished with 38 saves for the Jumbos, while his Panther counterpart Klein had 37.
The Jumbos fell 4-0 on Friday night to the Williams Ephs, who are currently second only to the Trinity Bantams in the NESCAC standings. Junior forward Luke Stickel, sophomore forward David Italiano, junior forward Tyler Young and senior defenseman Zander Masucci all scored on Tufts. Stickel’s goal came just 2:45 into the game, and Italiano extended the first period lead to two at 15:38. The other goals came within a minute of each other in the second period. Neither team scored in the third period as the Ephs nursed their lead.
“I thought we had a good jump out of the gates against Williams, but a few costly mental errors got us behind the eight-ball early and then against a good team like Williams you’re just not able to recover from that,” Norton said.
Pulde saved 29 shots and the Ephs scored on one of their four power plays. Williams senior goalie Noah Klag defended 20 shots and Tufts was unable to score on either of its two power plays.
The week prior to the Williams game, Tufts defeated Wesleyan 4-1 and suffered a 3-2 loss to Trinity in a rematch of the season opener. Earlier in January, Tufts dropped 4-2 to Amherst on Jan. 16 and tied 1-1 with Hamilton the next day. All four games were at home. Including Williams and Middlebury, Tufts’ last six games have been against NESCAC opponents and Tufts went 1-3-2 in that span, demonstrating the difficulties inherent in playing in such a tough conference with so much parity.
“There’s no night off [in the NESCAC],” Norton said. “Even Trinity, they see Tufts coming in and, even though we’re not at the top of the rankings right now, they know that it’s going to be a very tight game and probably come down to the third period. You have to mentally prepare for every single game being a real legitimate tight close contest. It’s a challenge. It’s a grind for the guys and it makes every night a real test, and I think that’s the biggest thing about NESCAC opponents.”
Although the NESCAC is widely regarded as a highly competitive, if not the premier, conference in Div. III hockey, the Jumbos relish their conference match-ups.
“A lot of kids played against a lot of kids in the league growing up,” Flanagan said. “I think we are really familiar with each team and know what to expect. I like playing against Williams, Trinity those games mean a lot.”
“We have the team this year, we have the leadership, Brian [Ouellette] and Stewart [Bell] are really good leaders,” Brown said. “We’re probably never going to find captains like those guys again. It’s been a slow start, but the little things are building up and it’s really coming together, and I think it’s going to show in these next six games and the playoffs.”
In a boost to the team, after the starting lineups had been announced prior to the Middlebury game began, the Tufts swimming and diving team, who themselves were competing at Middlebury, cheered “Go Jumbos” from the stands.
“That got us pretty hyped up,” Brown said. “It really helped us come out.”
“We’ve been very very pleased with the support we’ve gotten at the Malden Valley Forum this year,” Norton said. “It’s been a fun environment to play there.”
Tufts next takes on Connecticut College in two-game home and home series, for Tufts and Conn. College respectively. Both will be Green Dot games for charity.