Tufts hosts No. 9 Trinity in home opener, NESCAC semifinals rematch

Senior forward Conal Lynch handles the puck in the game against Conn. College on Feb. 5. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily Archives)

With nine skilled incoming first-years and two of the NESCAC’s best goalkeepers, Tufts men’s hockey is looking to improve on last season’s 10-10-6 overall record, striving for a NESCAC championship. Although the team is relatively young this year, with only six seniors, the new recruits have shown promise in the preseason and coach Pat Norton expects them to lead the team’s offense.

Goaltending will be one of the team’s biggest strengths once again this season. Among returning players, senior goalie Mason Pulde had the best save percentage in the NESCAC last season, at .946 in conference and .947 overall. Additionally, junior Nik Nugnes had the second-highest save percentage among returning goalies at .943 in NESCAC play, though his .941 overall rate ranks fourth in the NESCAC. Nugnes returns this season despite off-season hip surgery.

Offensively, the team graduated co-captain forward Stewart Bell (LA ’16) and gained five first-year forwards in Anthony Farinacci, Machlan Sawden, Tyler Scroggins, Ross DeLabreure and Blake McIntyre. Juniors Brian Brown and tri-captain Chad Goldberg, the team’s top two point-scorers last season, are poised to continue to be effective offensive players. Meanwhile, junior Oliver Takacsi-Nagy is the team’s only returning centerman, which means the Jumbos will be relatively inexperienced up the middle.

“With the [first-years] playing, this will be an adjustment period for them and hopefully it is a quick one,” Goldberg said. “We haven’t really had set lines throughout the preseason, so we are still trying to mix and match to figure out who fits with who, so that might be an issue. However, I don’t foresee it being something we can’t handle because of the depth of the team this season.”

Throughout the preseason, the team has also been working on an aggressive penalty kill and a defensive line that is active in the offensive zone. Norton has been training a more offensively-involved defense that is active in the rush and pinches whenever possible.

Tufts ranked worst in the NESCAC last season in terms of penalty minutes per game with 13.4, but turned its penchant for rough play into an asset by attacking while short-handed. The Jumbos’ seven short-handed goals on the season led the NESCAC and nearly doubled second place Conn. College and Trinity, who each scored four. 

A major offensive goal of the team is putting more pressure on the opposing goalie and creating more chaos at the net.

“Last year, I thought we were too passive early on and the goaltenders that we faced saw too many shots,” Norton said. “I want the team going aggressively at the net with shots, numbers and bodies and hopefully that translates into more goals per game.”

Tufts faces a tough challenge out of the gate against rival No. 9 Trinity in its home opener on Friday. The showdown is anticipated to be an intense and emotional game after the Jumbos fell to the Bantams in the NESCAC semifinals 4-3 to end last season.

“This is definitely a rivalry … that we enjoy. We like the atmosphere, especially after beating them two years ago in the [quarterfinals] and losing to them last year in NESCACs,” Goldberg said. “I think that it harbors … great competition and it’s going to be fun for us and those watching the game.”

Trinity, the defending NESCAC champion, has a highly-skilled team with many experienced upperclassmen, which could be a challenge for a younger Tufts roster, but Tufts is counting on its strong penalty kill to disrupt the offensive pressure that Trinity’s power play creates.

“It’s tough coming out of the gates against the nationally-ranked team when you’re still trying to create your own identity, so it will be a good test for us,” Norton said.

This will be Norton’s second season with the team, and he has already transformed its culture and expectations. With promising new recruits and consistently strong goaltending, the team feels it has a better chance than in recent years to win a NESCAC championship.

“Expectations are high this season. We really want to win a NESCAC championship, and I think we have enough good players now to do so,” junior forward Nick Flanagan said. “I’m not sure that in the past the team was quite strong enough to do it, but this year, the recruits are very strong and have been playing really well, so anything short of a NESCAC championship [would be] a disappointment.”

Following the Trinity game on Friday, Tufts hosts Wesleyan on Saturday at 3 p.m.