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

Jumbos are giant slayers once again in first round of NESCACs

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Tufts defenseman Sean Kavanagh (LA' 17) keeps the puck from an opponent on Friday, Feb. 5.

In what is quickly becoming a familiar story, No. 8-seeded Tufts defeated the No. 1 seed Williams 2-1 in the first round of the NESCAC Championship on Saturday. The win was the second in Tufts' NESCAC tournament history after last year's victory where Tufts, also the bottom seed then, beat the No. 1 seed, Trinity, 2-1 in the NESCAC quarterfinals. The Jumbos relish the opportunity to demonstrate that they are as good as any other team in the NESCAC.

"We were a little disappointed at the end of the season because we lost to Colby and dropped to the eighth seed, but I said ‘you know what? We like the eighth seed,'" Dom Granato, a senior, said.

The Ephs struck first and led throughout the game in shots on goal, but two goals in the second period earned the Jumbos the lead and a semifinals berth. Through the first period, Williams led in shots on goal 11-4. After a face-off one minute into the second period, first-year Michael Lata passed to sophomore C.J. Shugart in the slot. Shugart then rifled a shot past junior goaltender Mason Pulde to put the Ephs on the board first.

Ten minutes of game time later, junior Sean Kavanagh fired a shot from the right side at first-year Michael Pinios. The puck rebounded off a body in front of the net and found twine, tying the contest.

Momentum temporarily favored the Jumbos, and they felt the urgency of needing another goal. Junior Mike Leary sped through the Ephs' defense and fired a shot at Pinios, but the first-year saved it with his pad. Unwilling to leave it at that, senior Keith Campbell collected the rebound and scored his first goal of the season. That timely goal at 12:53 in the second period turned out to be the game-winner that extended the Jumbos' season one more game.

"Keith [Campbell] has played hard all year for us, and has been ready to play when called upon," Coach Pat Norton said. "He has played well of late, and he was given an opportunity to play in the tournament this weekend, and he played hard and competed. The puck found him in an opportunistic spot, and he was able to finish it off, and it was really exciting for him, and I know he was really happy, and the guys were really happy for him."

"These are my last games coming up, and I want to play as many as I can," Granato said. "All of us seniors were just fighting for another day. As a senior, you just have to put yourself out there and give yourself to the game and the team."

The Jumbos led 2-1, but there were still plenty of opportunities for the Ephs to tie the game. The Jumbos went on a power play late in the second, and although they did not score, Norton was pleased with how well they executed. In the third, Williams came out firing on all cylinders. Pulde saved 17 shots to Pinios' five. With 45 seconds left, Pinios was pulled for the extra man and still, the Jumbos resisted. Though their defense bent, it did not break and at the end of 60 minutes they went wild, celebrating their second straight year with a NESCAC Championship tournament victory over a heavily-favored opponent.

"I just remember the feeling from last year when we beat Trinity, and it was the same thing [this year], guys were going crazy in the locker room, jumping around," Brian Brown, a sophomore, said. "I think Coach [Norton] came in and was in shock how crazy we were going. It was a big win. We stuck to the gameplan and got it done."

"[I was impressed with] our team poise, guys like Brian Ouellette and Sean Kavanagh, those guys showed a lot of poise in the latter stages of the game when Williams was pressing," Norton said. "They made smart plays and didn’t panic and stayed within the game plan."

The shots on goal were 23 for Tufts and 37 for Williams. Tufts was 0 for 2 on power plays to Williams 0 for 5, and both teams were only penalized four times. The low penalty count was a point of emphasis for the Jumbos coming into the game, as was playing 60 minutes of focused hockey.

"We stayed out of the box...which was a big step forward for us and we tried to eliminate turnovers on our blue-line and their blue-line to try to make them go the whole 200 feet because they are really good in transition," Brown said. "We found that out in the two games we played against them. We just tried to get pucks in deep and go to work that way and they were kind of caught off guard by it."

With a win against the Ephs under their belt, the Jumbos will look to avenge two tight 3-2 regular season losses to the reigning national champion, the Trinity Bantams and to repeat last year's 2-1 victory over the higher-seeded Bantams in the NESCAC tournament.

"We beat them last year and knocked them out [of the NESCAC tournament], and I think they are scared," Brown said. "I don’t think they wanted to play us. I think they were happy that we lost to Colby. I think we are ready. Last year, we kind of got a taste of the playoffs...and that experience is going to help us going in against Trinity. Playing them in the playoffs again in back to back years is definitely a way to start a rivalry."

"We lost to [Williams] twice previously during the year, and we don’t think there’s a team in the league that can beat us three times, so the guys were really confident going in [on Saturday]," Ouellette, senior co-captain, said. "Trinity is another one of those teams, they’ve beaten us twice this year, and we don’t think that they can beat us a third time in a row so we are going to work hard this week, and I think we are going to be able to take it to them this weekend."

No. 8 Tufts takes on No 2. Trinity in Hartford, Conn. on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.. The winner of that game takes on the winner of the earlier 1:00 p.m. game between No. 5 Middlebury versus No. 6 Amherst on Sunday.