By Mike Zhe
The bus carrying the Plymouth State hockey team got back to campus around 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and players headed back to their dorms and apartments appropriately tired.
Tired, but happy.
The Panthers needed a win or a tie at Westfield State on Tuesday night to secure second place in the MASCAC and the first-round playoff bye that goes with it. After falling behind 2-0 in the opening three minutes, they rebounded, getting goals from five different players in a solid, 5-2 win.
“Last night,” said Plymouth coach Craig Russell (Northfield, Vt.), “got us some playoff experience.”
The Panthers (13-10-2, 11-5-2 MASCAC) are riding an eight-game unbeaten streak as the conference tournament begins. They grabbed a share of their third-straight regular-season title, though Salem State (14-9-2, 11-5-2 MASCAC earned the top seed by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
With 15 new faces, the Panthers never claimed to be anything but a work in progress. One of those freshmen – Ian McGilvrey – leads the team in scoring with 11-19-30 totals, but though the effort was always there, the results weren’t, especially on the defensive end.
“It’s been a funny year,” said Russell. “We have so much inexperience on our team. Even through the first half of January, we didn’t now what our identity was.”
After a pair of losses to a good Amherst team (4-3) and a bad Milwaukee School of Engineering one (3-1) at the Northfield Savings Bank tournament at Norwich, coaches made better defensive zone play a priority. The midseason addition of goalie Gordon Ceasar (9-3-2, 1.63 goals-against average, .946 save percentage), a Utica College transfer, helped solidify things, too.
“I never had an idea what the end product would look like,” said Russell. “I knew we were good enough to be a contender. We needed to peak at the right time; that’s what I preached to the guys throughout the year.”
In a wide-open MASCAC, the Panthers are peaking, and in a balanced way. Juniors Mike Freitag and Zach Sarig, and sophomores Zach Fox (Sandown, N.H.), Josh Woody and Andrew Wigg all have at least 20 points.
They’re also taking nothing for granted.
“Even though we’re on a nice little stretch right now,” said Russell, “we’re one mistake away from being done.”
Player of the Week
Louis Belisle, sr., D, Middlebury
Senior anchored two big weekend wins against Amherst (3-2) and Hamilton (5-2), notching three goals and an assist, that lifted Panthers into fourth place and a home quarterfinal game.
Game of the Week
ECAC East semifinals, (3) UMass-Boston at (2) Babson, Saturday, 7 p.m.
The host Beavers will still have a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAAs if they fail to win the ECAC East tournament. UMB as no such luxury. The explosive Beacons have toyed all year with being a great team; this is their chance to prove it.
NEHJ Division 3 Power Rankings
1. Trinity (20-4, 15-3
Jackson Brewer (Newton, Mass.) became the first Division 3 player in eight years to reach 50 points in a season with his four-assist effort in win over Wesleyan Saturday (8-5).
2. Norwich (18-5-3, 13-3-2 ECAC East)
William Pelletier set up three goals as the top-seeded Cadets dominated No. 8 Skidmore, 6-0, in their ECAC East quarterfinal.
3. Babson (20-4-2, 13-3-2 ECAC East)
After being held scoreless in the first period, second-seeded Beavers erupted for five goals in the second to cruise past No. 7 Southern Maine, 6-0, in ECAC East quarters.
4. UMass-Boston (17-5-4, 9-5-4 ECAC East)
Peter MacIntyre (Norfolk, Mass.) led the scoring parade with a goal and two assists as third-seeded Beacons walloped No. 6 University of New England, 7-2, in ECAC East quarters.
5. Amherst (14-7-3, 12-4-2
Lord Jeffs scored three times in the third period to beat Williams Sunday, 4-1, and secure second place in the conference. Dave Cunningham (Arlington, Mass.) made 29 saves.
6. Williams (14-7-3, 10-5-3 NESCAC)
A 1-4-1 finish dropped Ephs into the No. 3 seed for the NESCAC tournament. They’ll play No. 6 Colby in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
7. Nichols (16-6-6, 9-3-2 ECAC Northeast)
Bison secured first place despite letting two-goal third period lead slip away in 5-5 tie with Western New England on Saturday.
8. Johnson & Wales
(17-7-1, 7-6-1 ECAC Northeast)
Despite nine-game win streak that began in December, Wildcats are locked into fourth place in the ECAC Northeast.
State (13-10-2, 11-5-2 ECAC
Ian McGilvrey had a goal and assist as surging Panthers blanked Framingham State, 4-0, on Saturday, extending their unbeaten streak to seven games.
10. Salem State (14-9-2, 11-5-2
Vikings earned the top seed in the MASCAC tournament and will play at home as long as they keep winning.