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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Despite late drama, hockey team can't pull off second upset to keep season alive

Tufts forward Conal Lynch, A17, lines up a shot in the game against Conn. College on Friday, Feb. 5.

The No. 2-seeded Trinity Bantams ended the No. 8-seeded Tufts Jumbos' Cinderella story postseason by handing them a 4-3 loss on Saturday in the NESCAC semifinals. For the Bantams, the win avenged last season's 2-1 defeat in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the bottom-seeded Jumbos, the greatest stain on a season that saw them go on to win the national championship. 

For the Jumbos, the loss marked their second straight season ending in a NESCAC semifinals loss after improbably taking down the conference's No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals. Last year, No. 8-seeded Tufts upset the top seed Trinity in the opening round of the NESCAC tournament, and in déjà vu fashion this year -- again seeded eighth -- Tufts upset the No. 1 seed Williams Feb. 27 to make it to Saturday's semifinals.

The Bantams, ranked sixth in the nation, sealed their third NESCAC championship — after winning in 2003 and 2008 — with a dominant 5-1 victory over the Amherst Purple and White and earned the NESCAC's automatic bid to the national tournament.

"We’re obviously disappointed that we weren’t able to get a NESCAC championship," senior co-captain Stewart Bell said. "We were in the final four last year and would have loved to have taken that next step to win the semifinal game and to get in the finals and see what happens. It’s still promising that we were back in the final four this year."

In the first period, the Bantams came out aggressively and the Jumbos started slow. The forward trio of sophomore Oliver Takacsi-Nagy and seniors Dom Granato and James Randaccio came close to scoring as Granato rifled a shot just wide of the goal. Despite the Jumbos' defense letting up 15 shots on goal, sophomore goalie Nik Nugnes held out until the very last second of the first period. Senior co-captain Brian Ouellette was called for hooking at 19:45 and with half a second remaining in the period, sophomore forward Tyler Whitney lit up the scoreboard on an assist from senior forward Michael Hawkrigg and sophomore Anthony Sabitsky.

"James Randaccio had a great game," coach Patrick Norton said. "I thought James was a factor physically every shift. I thought he was finishing his checks. I thought he played a real simple smart game, and I thought he attacked the net and tried to get some shots off. He wasn’t afraid of the moment. He came out and had good energy and even though he hasn’t played a lot this year, his work ethic has been outstanding. He’s one of the first guys on the ice every day [in practice]."

The second period was more of the same. Just 2:29 into the period, junior forward Ryan Cole, one of the fastest players on the ice, received a Sabitsky pass and capitalized to put the Bantams ahead 2-0. The goal was Cole's 10th of the season and earned Sabitsky his team-leading 16th assist of the season.

"I didn’t think we played our best game against Trinity," Norton said. "We didn’t have quite as good jump as we’ve had in some of our other games. We weren’t as aggressive as we’ve been in terms of confidence. By aggressive I don’t mean penalties, I mean jumping on loose pucks and winning one on one battles early on. Even though things weren’t quite going well for us, we stuck with it and didn’t get down on ourselves."

Through the first two periods, the Jumbos were outshot 30-14. However, the third period was a different story entirely. The Jumbos came alive at the outset, perhaps sensing the urgency and hoping to prolong their season. Despite the tangible momentum shift, two untimely penalties on Bell for hooking and charging held the offense back. On the second power play opportunity, Trinity senior tri-captain Elie Vered rocketed a shot past Nugnes from the right side. Junior brothers Ryan and Brandon Cole assisted on the play.

Normally solid on the penalty-kill, the penalties on Bell and Ouellette were especially difficult to kill because, according to coach Norton, both captains are among the best penalty-killers on the team.

Down 3-0, the outlook of the game had turned bleak for the Jumbos. However, refusing to accept defeat, the Jumbos redoubled their attack. Sophomore defenseman Dan Kelly won a face-off on the left side and slung a pass to first-year Nick Abbene, who wasted no time blasting the puck into the back of the net behind sophomore goaltender Alex Morin. Bell said Abbene's shot was one of the best he'd ever seen in person.

Having cut the deficit, the Jumbos seemed to slow down, especially on a power play a minute later that the Bantams easily killed. The Bantams went on the offensive a few times, earning one-on-one opportunities for Vered and junior forward Ethan Holdaway. However, Nugnes solidly anchored the Jumbos defense and denied both attempts.Despite Nugnes' impressive play, Jumbo first-year Peter Straub was called for hooking at 17:45 and Brandon Cole converted the power play on his own 20 seconds later.

The Jumbos flipped the switch in the last minute, fighting tooth and nail to keep their season alive. After pulling Nugnes for the extra skater, junior forward Mike Leary was able to sink an open look at 19:19 after Ouellette's shot was deflected. The deficit was once again cut to two, and Granato improbably found twine at 19:50 off an assist from sophomore Chad Goldberg to make it 4-3.

Ten seconds and one goal separated the overtime from the end of their season. The Jumbos won the face-off and sped down the ice to fire a shot at Morin, who snagged the puck with his gloved hand. Just under five seconds remained, but the Jumbos watched precious seconds tick by on the clock despite Morin holding onto the puck. The clock finally stopped at 1.8 seconds and the crowd let the referees know their displeasure. Without replay or any other means to check the correct time, the referees settled on 2.9 seconds remaining. The Jumbos and Bantams faced off in the left circle of the Bantam's defensive zone and the Bantams won the face-off. Despite the furious comeback attempt, Tufts' season was over.

"It’s obviously a little bit too-little-too-late, but three [goals] in a minute, minute and a half or so," Randaccio said. "It’s nice to go down swinging and have that knowledge that your team wants to fight to the end and claw for something that seemed out of reach. I think we are all a little bit disappointed. It wasn’t our night. We gave up some bounces and made a couple mistakes that led to their goals. We definitely saw ourselves playing for the NESCAC championship the next day, so I’m not going to say we’re not disappointed."

Finishing the season 10-10-6 is an improvement on last year's 9-15-2 finish for the Jumbos. Their second half record demonstrates how the team improved throughout the season, as the Jumbos went 8-6-3 following the break in Norton's first season coaching the Jumbos.

"It’s good to see the program is in good hands and [Norton] came in and did an unbelievable job for his first college head job," Randaccio said. "I’ve a tremendous amount of respect for him, and I think all of the seniors would agree they think the program is in good hands with him. It was a transition period, definitely, and I’m just glad that we as seniors got to see it."

Junior goalie Mason Pulde finished second in the NESCAC in regular season save percentage at .946 and Nugnes finished third at .943. Earlier in the season, coach Norton had intended to alternate goalies throughout the regular season and pick a starter for the playoffs. However, he ended up alternating Pulde and Nugnes in the NESCAC tournament.

"I’m looking at the weekend with the expectation of playing two games, and I felt like I wanted to continue with the consistency of what we’d been doing all year," Norton said. "I felt like Nik [Nugnes] was more than capable of doing the job, and Nik played tremendously. He was outstanding throughout the game."

The Jumbos finished sixth in scoring, worst in penalty minutes, third in power play and fifth in penalty kill. Statistically middle of the pack, the team proved it could at times step up to play with anyone in the NESCAC with the win over Williams and the close loss to Trinity. Sophomore Chad Goldberg showed promise, scoring six conference goals with four assists in just 14 games due to injury. He missed almost all of last season with a broken collarbone.

Bell finishes with over 100 games played in his Tufts career, the most on the team, and 27 goals to go along with 30 assists. Ouellette scored 11 goals with 28 assists in 89 career games.

"I think the leadership this year from the top down has been excellent," Randaccio said. "Our captains this year, Brian Ouellette and Stewart Bell, were, I think, some of the best captains I’ve seen in college sports in my career. They did an unbelievable job from last April when they were elected to today. They expected a high level of integrity and work ethic on the team, and, I think everybody really wanted to work hard for them."

"I was really happy with how things went this year," Norton added. "I was lucky enough to have two outstanding captains in Stewart Bell and Brian Ouellette who were tremendous all year. They really stepped up to a lot of the responsibilities that I put upon them and not only did they meet those expectations but I thought they actually went above and beyond those."

For the seniors, the end of the season is bittersweet.

"I’ve been playing hockey for 20 years," Randaccio said. "I tried to really enjoy the day, start to finish. We were able to get down there the day before and have a walk-through, team breakfast at the hotel, warm-ups at the rink kind of thing. Seeing the rink fill up, parents and friends came. I try to just take it all in. You don’t want it to be your last game, but playoff hockey your senior year, it’s kind of like you’re staring down the end of a 20 year pipeline kind of thing. I tried to enjoy every minute of it and go out and earn it, shift by shift. I had a lot of fun despite the loss. I’m still digesting the end of it to be honest."