THE LAST TIME the New England College men’s hockey team lost a game, many of its players likely had not started their holiday shopping.
The No. 15 Pilgrims (15-3-5, 8-3-5 New England Hockey Conference) enter their final regular-season weekend on a 16-game unbeaten streak. NEC will visit No. 8 Norwich (16-4-3, 11-4-1 NEHC) Friday at 7 p.m. before playing at Castleton (4-15-4, 2-12-2 NEHC) Saturday at 4 p.m.
NEC has gone 12-0-4 since its 3-1 loss at Hobart College on Nov. 17, which is the second-longest unbeaten streak in NCAA Division II-III hockey.
“Obviously we don’t think about it too much but it’s definitely in the back of our minds we haven’t lost since November,” NEC senior forward Connor Fries said. “We feel good as a team. We click really well and get along. That helps a lot. Pushing each other every day in practice and holding each other accountable is a good thing.”
The Pilgrims were 3-3-1 before the unbeaten streak began but coach Tom Carroll said his team did not play poorly over its first seven games.
“In terms of if anything turned, it didn’t feel as though we were in a bad way to start,” Carroll said. “I thought we were playing well against good teams. Sometimes you get a break and sometimes you don’t.”
As the season has progressed, Carroll has seen the Pilgrims battle through adversity and find ways to be successful using their competitiveness.
“Every night is a battle in our league and they’ve answered the call and responded to the challenges,” Carroll said of his players.
Fries, a Proctor Academy of Andover graduate, said that during the unbeaten stretch some of the team’s four ties have felt like losses. While the Pilgrims would have liked to win those four games, Fries said the team benefited in a way from the draws.
“It kind of rebooted us to have a good week of practice — to come out ready to go next weekend,” Fries said. “Those ties in there kind of helped us keep going a little bit.
“It shows we’ve got to show up every night to win hockey games here. We can’t just show up and expect to win. We’ve got to buy in and work hard every day.”
Some of the reasons behind the Pilgrims’ success have been their stout defensive unit and the play of Fries and his linemates, junior Carlos Fornaris and freshman Nikita Pintusov.
Fries is second on the team and tied for seventh in the NEHC in scoring with a career-high 23 points and 16 goals. Fornaris leads NEC in scoring with 31 points and his 27 assists are tied for the second-most in Division II-III. Pintusov is third on the team and 11th in the conference in scoring with 22 points (14 goals, eight assists).
“Carlos, he’s a pass-first kind of guy and all the teams we play, they all know too he goes for the pass,” Fries said. “I don’t know how he does it but he makes unbelievable plays that I don’t think any guy on our team can make. He has that extra vision….Nikita is good at opening the ice up too and he’s an unbelievable shot so (teams) have to respect him as a shooter too, which opens up a lane for me to go to the net and get rebounds.”
The Pilgrims entered the season with three returning defensemen, which has forced them to use forwards including senior Martin Hallin and freshman Josh Chamberlain on the blue line at times. Freshmen defensemen Connor Dunn and Chris Maratea have also seen significant minutes.
Despite NEC’s defensive inexperience, it has allowed 1.87 goals per game, which ranks third in the conference. Junior goaltender Anthony Pupplo owns the best save percentage (.936) and fourth-best goals against average (1.96) in the NEHC.
Like the Pilgrims, Norwich is on an unbeaten streak of its own. The Cadets have gone 10-0-2 since their 2-1 loss at NEC Dec. 8, which marked both teams’ last game before the holiday break.
Norwich is tied with Babson for second while NEC is fourth in the conference standings. Wins over Norwich and Castleton could potentially lift the Pilgrims as high as the No. 2 seed for the NEHC playoffs.
“If we show up and play our game well, we’ll be able to take those two points Friday and four on the weekend,” Fries said. “I think we’re ready to go.”
Southern New Hampshire University freshman Alec Marshall was named the Northeast-10 Conference goalie of the week and Saint Michael’s College sophomore Niall Foster was selected to the league’s weekly honor roll this week.
Marshall, a Nashua resident and Bishop Guertin of Nashua graduate, earned his first career shutout in his second career start last Friday, when he made 24 saves in SNHU’s 6-0 win over Post. The shutout victory marked the Penmen’s first of the season.
Marshall started again the next night, allowing three goals on 38 shots in SNHU’s 3-2 loss to Post.
Foster, a forward from Newmarket, logged two goals and two assists and went 14-for-23 on faceoffs in the Purple Knights’ 5-2 triumph at Saint Anselm College last Saturday. Foster’s four-point performance marked the first by a Saint Michael’s player since AJ Pieprzak and Jeremy Wong both did so in a 9-2 victory at Franklin Pierce University on Feb. 3, 2015.
Amherst College senior Sarah Wagner recorded the first assist and fourth point of her collegiate career in the Mammoths’ 5-3 loss at No. 3 Plattsburgh State last Saturday.
Wagner, a forward from Hanover, and Elizabeth Holubiak, a freshman defender from Hooksett, assisted on freshman Stephanie Nomicos‘ first collegiate goal 1:40 into the second period, which trimmed Plattsburgh State’s lead to 3-1.
Wagner, who played at Hanover High School, has logged two goals and an assist this season. Holubiak has tallied three assists.