Bolstered by clutch goaltending and tenacious forechecking, the men’s hockey team battled its way to a NESCAC championship this weekend, grinding out victories over Williams (2-1) and Middlebury (4-3) to capture the program’s first conference title in three years.
Having outworked and outhustled league opponents during a 17-1-0 NESCAC regular season campaign, the Jeffs delivered another workman-like effort to prevail over Williams and Middlebury. As the final buzzer sounded at Orr Rink against Middlebury, the jubilant Jeffs poured onto the ice in a frenzy, throwing gloves and sticks up into the air before mobbing each other in front of a raucous home crowd.
“It feels terrific to win the NESCAC Championship. That’s the goal at the beginning of every year, and I couldn’t be happier that the guys were rewarded for all of the time and effort they put into the season,” head coach Jack Arena said.
After crushing Hamilton 6-0 in the quarterfinal round last weekend, the Jeffs gutted out a 2-1 semifinal victory over Williams on Saturday. The result marked Amherst’s seventh consecutive win over the Ephs, a streak dating back to 2007. The Jeffs skated to a strong start against Williams and scored the first goal less than five minutes into the game. Andrew Fenwick ’15 stuffed in his own rebound near the right post after receiving a pass from Jamie Hawkrigg ’13 to put the Jeffs ahead 1-0 just 4:25 into the opening period.
Amherst doubled its lead on a power-play midway through the second period, as defenseman Jeremy Deutsch ’12 one-timed a pass from Nick Brunette ’13 at the 10:03 mark. The Jeffs kept the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches in the second period, outshooting Williams 14-5 in the stanza. Intensifying the offensive pressure in the final period, the desperate Ephs closed the deficit to 2-1 with 13 minutes left in regulation, but goaltender Jonathan La Rose ’12 made several crucial saves to preserve the victory. La Rose stopped 27 of 28 shots to anchor the Jeffs’ defensive effort.
“I felt we played pretty well against Williams,” Arena said. “Both Williams and Middlebury are well-coached teams, and the games were every bit as close as the scores.”
With little time to savor the victory, the Jeffs encountered a stiff challenge from Middlebury in Sunday’s championship tilt, falling behind 2-0 in the first 10 minutes. Paralyzed by nerves in a shaky start, Amherst struggled to contain Middlebury’s offense as the surging Panthers dictated the early stages of the contest.
Looking to quell Middlebury’s momentum and get his team to regroup, Arena called a time-out immediately after the Panthers took a 2-0 lead at the 9:40 mark. “I thought we were a bit tentative at the beginning of the game, and after Middlebury’s second goal, I called timeout just to remind them that our normal game has been good enough all year and to just relax and play,” Arena said.
With five minutes left in the opening period, Amherst scored a critical power-play goal to cut the deficit to 2-1. The Jeffs moved the puck quickly around the perimeter before Mike Moher ’13 found Mark Colp ’12 with a cross-ice feed to the goal mouth, allowing Colp to jam the puck into the cage.
In the second period, the Jeffs began to win more puck battles along the boards, and a series of gritty forechecking efforts propelled the Jeffs to a 3-2 lead. Fenwick galvanized the home team by diving after a loose puck near the Middlebury goal line, nudging the puck away from a defender and into the open slot. Brian Safstrom ’14 skated into the area and fired the puck into the gaping net to even the score at 2-2 at the 9:12 mark of the period.
Less than three minutes later, the Jeffs grabbed the lead after winning another tough jostle in the offensive zone. With a scrum materializing in the right corner along the boards, Dylan Trumble ’13 was able to dig out the puck and move it towards the goal mouth; an alert Andrew Kurlandski ’14 beat his defender to the loose puck, backhanding it past the Panthers’ goaltender at 12:03 of the period.
The Jeffs capped a strong second period with a power-play goal in the final minute. Johnny Van Siclen ’13 fired a shot from the left circle that was blocked in front, but Moher pounced on the juicy rebound for his team-leading 13th goal of the season.
Amherst’s power-play unit, which went two-for-five against Middlebury, has been prolific all season; the Jeffs led the league with a 27.6 percent success rate. “Our power play was good this weekend. We had some fortunate bounces that led to a couple of goals, but we were in position and opportunistic when we got them,” Arena said. “Our power play guys have worked hard to understand what we’re looking for and have been great reading and reacting during the games.”
The Panthers would not die quietly, however, and came out skating more aggressively in the final period. The visitors cut the lead to 4-3 with a power-play goal with 8:45 left in regulation, with the Panthers’ Charles Strauss scoring his second tally off a rebound from a hard slap shot through traffic. After pulling the goaltender with 1:39 to go, Middlebury mounted a furious attempt to score the equalizer, creating a slew of dangerous opportunities. Receiving a pass in the slot, the Panthers’ Chris Steele snapped a quick shot from point-blank range, but La Rose flashed his glove to make an outrageous reflex stop — “as good a save as I’ve seen—ever,” Arena said.
With 50.8 seconds left and Middlebury still buzzing around the Amherst cage, the visitors appeared to tie the game when a Panthers’ forward batted an airborne puck into the net, but the officials disallowed the goal due to high-sticking (the player’s stick went above the cross bar). From there, La Rose and the Jeffs hung on for the victory.
La Rose, the first goaltender ever to earn the NESCAC Player of the Year award, finished with 33 saves, as Middlebury out-shot the Jeffs by a 36-22 margin, including 13-5 in the final period.
“I felt we played pretty well against Middlebury,” Arena said. “The constant this year is that we’ve worked and competed hard every game and even when our execution hasn’t been perfect, we’ve worked hard enough to win.” Fresh off a NESCAC title, the Jeffs have turned their sights to a national championship. As the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Jeffs will host a quarterfinal matchup against Plattsburgh State (19-4-4) on Saturday night.
“When you get to playoff hockey, it’s often just a play or two that decides the game,” Arena said. “Fortunately we’ve been able to make those plays up to now and hopefully that can continue for a few more games.”