Tufts duels Williams to draw, outscores Middlebury 5-3

Junior forward Brian Brown looks for a pass past a Trinity defender in the home opener against the Bantams on Nov. 18. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts hit the road last weekend for a doubleheader against NESCAC rivals Williams and Middlebury. The Jumbos never trailed in the 3-3 tie against the Ephs on Friday, and they led the Panthers from start to finish in a 5-3 win on Saturday. Tufts’ overall record is now 5-1-1 and the team ranks second in the NESCAC behind No. 12 Colby. The wins were a drastic improvement compared to this point last season, when Tufts dropped home games to Williams and Middlebury and carried a 1-4-2 record.

“Last year was kind of a transition season with coach [Pat] Norton[‘s] first season under his belt,” senior tri-captain defenseman Sean Kavanagh said. “That was kind of like a culture shift. We were trying to focus on changing the culture of the team. Now this year, once we’ve already accomplished that, we can focus more on the X’s and O’s and … not have to worry about any administrative tasks or worry about how to get the jerseys. Right now we are just focusing on hockey and the results have shown.”

The Jumbos killed an early hooking penalty against the Panthers before going up 1-0 just 6:45 into the first period, as junior forward Oliver Takacsi-Nagy scored his first goal of the season. Takacsi-Nagy collected the rebound from senior forward/defenseman Matt Pugh’s shot and slipped it past first-year goalkeeper Brian Ketchabaw.

Senior forward Greg Conrad answered right back for Middlebury just a minute and a half later, redirecting senior tri-captain defenseman Andrew Neary’s slap-shot from above the left face-off circle into the net.

Following Conrad’s goal, the Jumbos regained possession and unleashed five shots on Ketchabaw in quick succession. Sophomore forward Clay Berger won a face-off in the offensive zone and netted his second goal of the season on the same possession with 12:08 gone by in the first period.

Tufts led the contest 2-1 entering the second period, and Kavanagh extended the lead to 3-1 with his first score of the season. During a five-on-three power play, Kavanagh fired a slap-shot from above the left circle into the bottom right corner of the net. It was the only goal of the period despite Tufts controlling the puck and nearly doubling Middlebury’s shot attempts 13-7.

Kavanagh added a second five-on-three power play goal in the third period on an assist from junior forward Brian Brown.

Senior Goaltender Mason Pulde praised Kavanagh’s performance, adding that it was not unique to this weekend.

“It may seem just because he had two goals this weekend against [Middlebury] that he played especially well, but he’s always one of the most dominant guys on the ice whether it shows up in the box score or not,” he said.

The Panthers got their skaters back but committed another infraction, and first-year forward Tyler Scroggins netted Tufts’ final goal of the game with just under 14 minutes to go. Down 5-1, the game was all but over for the Panthers, though they added two points before the final buzzer, including a second score from Conrad, to finish at 5-3.

Middlebury pulled its goalie and Tufts committed a late penalty, causing a six-on-four situation, which Tufts was able to kill but still frustrated Norton.

“For any team, six-on-four feels nerve-wracking,” Norton said. “I never felt like we were in jeopardy of losing the game, but a game that we were in complete control of, we made a little more difficult for ourselves and we’ve got to get better there.”

Ketchabaw was forced to make 35 saves as opposed to Pulde’s 28, as the the Panthers’ 11 infractions caused them to spend half of the game on penalty kill. For their part, the Jumbos mostly stayed out of the penalty box with only four infractions.

Friday’s contest against Williams was more tightly contested than the Middlebury game, and neither team gained enough of an edge in the first period to score. Brown got the best of sophomore goalkeeper Michael Pinios during a power play early in the second period to put Tufts on the scoreboard first. First-year forward Blake McIntyre’s second goal of the season 12:29 into the second period stretched Tufts’ lead to 2-0. Senior forwards Pat Lackey and tri-captain Mike Leary assisted on McIntyre’s score.

Williams answered back three minutes later in the second period and struck first in the third period, tying the contest up at 2-2 with 14 minutes to play.

A game that seemed in the Jumbos’ hands was suddenly up in the air. Brown, Tufts’ leading scorer with five goals and five assists thus far in the season, bailed his team out by converting on a power play with 10:43 gone. Scroggins assisted on the play.

“Brownie worked really hard this summer, he got himself into fantastic shape,” Norton said about Brown. “He’s shooting the puck, which has been helpful. There were times last year where I’m not sure the [opposing] goalie actually needed to be in the net when Brownie was out on the ice because he was going to pass it or stick handle it out the door, but this year he’s really played hard every single game.”

However, keeping the Ephs — last season’s NESCAC regular season champions — down is no easy feat, and junior forward Colby Cretella converted the Ephs’ only power play goal of the contest to tie the game at 3-3. Even overtime could not decide a winner, as neither team scored in the extra period.

“We kind of gave a point away at Williams,” Kavanagh said. “Last year, once they tied it up, we might have blown that game and ended up losing it, but this year we have a better mentality and we’ve been winning third periods, so we were able to at least get the tie and everyone knows that a tie at Williams is a pretty good weekend.”

The Ephs outshot the Jumbos in every period, finishing with 43 attempts to the Jumbos’ 30. Tufts was more successful on the power play, converting two of five attempts to Williams’ sole conversion on the same number of tries.

Tufts scored eight goals over the weekend and met Norton’s goal of scoring at least three times per game.

“Last year I took a stat … and I just threw out there, where would we be if we had three goals in every game?” Norton said. “The difference of a 10-10-6 record with a … let’s say .7 differential of a goal, we would have been 15-4-5 with just one more goal per game. My belief is, with our team defense and with the solid goaltending of Mason [Pulde] and [junior] Nik [Nugnes], if we get three or more goals every game, we give ourselves an opportunity to win every game and certainly get points out of every game.”

Pulde added that this three goal target also makes playing goalie easier.

“Anytime your team can put up three or more goals, that just takes a load off for the goalie,” Pulde said. “Going into the game, when you know your teammates are going to put up a certain number of points, there’s just a lot less pressure on you so it’s just a lot easier to do your job. That said, I go into every game expecting to have a shutout so I expect to do my job, but it’s a relief to know that if I make a mistake or two, they’re there to pick me up, which they did this weekend.”

Kavanagh credits the team’s offensive prolificacy to changes on defense.

“This year, we changed up our defensive game plan a little bit. We got more aggressive,” Kavanagh said. “We’re breaking the puck out way easier, getting it up to the forwards, and that’s also why we’re producing more scoring. If the forwards have the puck on their sticks longer in the offensive zone, they have more time to score, more opportunities.”

Pulde, who usually switches off games with Nugnes, protected the net in both contests this weekend. Both match-ups were emotional for Pulde, who transferred to Tufts from Middlebury after his first year and who grew up watching his older brother, Marc Pulde, play ice hockey at Williams.

“There [was] a lot of emotion when I played both those teams because … growing up, I’d been to that Williams rink so many times to watch my brother play and [at] Middlebury … I wasn’t on the team there my freshman year so there’s almost a revenge aspect going into that weekend every time we play,” Pulde said. “Obviously I want to win every game and I’m excited to win every game, but there’s a little added incentive on the Williams [and] Middlebury games.”

Tufts hosts Bowdoin (4-4) tonight at 7 p.m. in the Malden Valley Forum before taking on current NESCAC leader Colby (5-1) at home on Saturday at 4 p.m. Colby and Tufts are currently undefeated in the NESCAC at 4-0-0 and 3-0-1, respectively.