MIDDLETOWN, Conn. – After posting its first winning season in the NESCAC since the 2006-07 campaign, the fifth-seeded Wesleyan University men's ice hockey team will hit the road and compete against fourth-seeded Hamilton in the quarterfinals of the conference postseason on Saturday at 4 p.m. in Clinton, N.Y.
"Once you get to playoffs, all the teams are good so we know that to advance we are going to have to beat a good team," junior captain Chad Malinowski said. "While we have a lot of respect for Hamilton, this week, we are really focusing on what we have to do to win the game."
The No. 5 slot is the program's second-highest finsh ever in the NESCAC regular-season standings, as the squad earned the fourth seed and a home playoff game during the 2007 tournament with a 9-6-4 mark in the NESCAC. Overall, the Cardinals have qualified for the NESCAC Tournament 10 times, including four straight years from 2011-14.
The two programs crossed paths during the semifinals of the 2017 NESCAC Tournament, as the seventh-seeded Cardinals upset second-seeded Colby, 5-4, in the quarterfinals.
During the second-round meeting, the top-seeded Continentals used two goals in the final four minutes, 56 seconds, by Nick Ursitti '20 to earn a dramatic 5-4 win. Jordan Jancze '18 finished with a goal and an assist for Wesleyan, as the group compiled a 13-9-4 overall record, which was the program's most wins since the 1988-89 campaign.
Wesleyan (12-7-5, 8-6-4 NESCAC), which has now compiled back-to-back winning seasons under 15th-year head coach Chris Potter, split a pair of games with the Continentals (15-6-3, 9-6-3 NESCAC) during the 2017-18 season.
The Cardinals earned a 5-3 win against then-No. 8-ranked Hamilton, 5-3, on Dec. 3 in Clinton, N.Y., as sophomore goalie Tim Sestak tallied his first win as a Cardinal with an astounding 45 saves. Sophomore forwards Tyler Wyatt (two assists) and Spencer Fox (one goal, one assist) each tallied two-point games for the visitors.
The Continentals fired back with a 5-2 triumph on Jan. 28 at the Spurrier-Snyder Rink, scoring two goals in the opening two minutes, 23 seconds, and then senior forward Brandon Willett buried the game winner at the 14:31 mark of the second.
Both teams have been strong in net all year, as Sestak (8-5-5) has boasted a .932 save percentage, a 2.11 goals-against average and two shutouts en route to earning NESCAC Player of the Week honors on Feb. 5. Junior goalie George Blinick has been a strong option for the Cardinals, going 4-2-0 during the regular season.
For Hamilton, senior goalie Evan Buitenhuis (8-2-3), who earned the 2017 Sid Watson award as the Division III Men's Ice Hockey Player of the Year, has been tough to beat with a 1.22 goals-against average, a .956 save percentage and four shutouts in 13 games. Sophomore goalie Anthony Tirabassi has also been reliable, going 7-4-0 with a 1.88 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and two shutouts in 12 appearances.
"All year, our team has done a great job of generating shots, as well as getting pucks low on the goalie to generate rebounds, and we need to continue to do so," Malinowski said. "Another key to the game for us is controlling line changes by keeping possession in the opponent's end."
The two programs have a rich playoff history, as they also met during the 2011 postseason with the eighth-seeded Cardinals earning their first-ever NESCAC playoff victory, downing the top-seeded Continentals, 5-2.
AT A GLANCE: FIFTH-SEEDED WESLEYAN
- Senior forward Dylan Holze, who was named a semifinalist for the 18th Joe Concannon award on Tuesday, leads the NESCAC in goals (16) and points (26), as the Lynbrook, N.Y. native ranks No. 12 among all Division III players within the nation in short-handed goals (two) and 18th in goals per game (0.67).
- Wyatt (eight goals, 16 assists) is tied for first in the NESCAC in assists and ranks second in points, and sophomore forward Walker Harris (nine goals, 13 assists) has been a consistent threat in the offensive zone, as the Cardinals rank third in the NESCAC with 74 goals.
- Senior forward Cam McCusker held the clutch gene throughout the regular season, coming up with a team-high four game-winnng goals, which is tied for the second most within the conference.
- Junior defenseman Sean Ross buried the game-clinching goal with four seconds remaining from the left point during a thrilling 2-1 win over NESCAC-foe Bowdoin on Jan. 12 in Middletown, Conn.
- The Cardinals defeated then-No. 6-ranked Trinity, 2-1, on Feb. 16, snapping a 10-game losing streak to the Bantams, and marking their first win in the series since Feb. 16, 2013.
- A major reason behind the Cardinals' success has been the play of their senior class, featuring Holze, McCusker (six goals, eight assists), Jancze (eight goals, four assists), Marty Rubin (one goal, seven assists) and Theo Tydingco (one goal, two assists).
- The coaching staff, featuring Potter, and assistant coaches David Lun and Jim Panczykowski '04 have done a great job in taking the schedule one game at a time, as the squad has only lost back-to-back games once during the entire season. From Nov. 18 – Jan. 6, the unit embarked on a nine-game unbeaten streak, consisting of six wins and three ties.
AT A GLANCE: FOURTH-SEEDED HAMILTON
- Hamilton has been a force on defense this season, giving up only 40 goals in 24 games (1.67 per game), which ranks atop the conference. The squad also has the second-best, penalty-killing unit in the NESCAC with a 90.9-percent killing rate.
- The Continentals have seven double-digit point scorers, headlined by junior forward Jason Brochu (nine goals, 13 assists), junior forward Rory Gagnon (13 goals, six assists), Willett (nine goals, 10 asssists), Ursitti (11 goals, seven assists) and senior forward Neil Conway (four goals, 13 assists).
- Hamilton has now hosted three consecutive quarterfinal-round matchups dating back to the 2015-16 season, as the team finished as the NESCAC runner-up last year, losing 3-2, to Trinity in overtime.
- The Continentals have qualified for the conference tournament in four straight seasons and nine times over the last 10 years.