By Mike Zhe
PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Colt Smelstor scored to answer a Westfield State tally early in the first period. Mike Economos answered another one late.
Andrew Wigg, Ryan Callahan, Josh Woody and then Economos again rounded out the Plymouth State scoring during a 6-4 win Saturday at a hopping Hanaway Rink.
Half a dozen goals, with each one scored by either a freshman or sophomore. If anyone needed more evidence that 1) this is a new-look Plymouth team and 2) it can compete for another league title, they shouldn’t.
It is and it can.
“We’ve been struggling to put together good shifts, good consecutive shifts,” said fourth-year coach Craig Russell (Northfield, Vt.). “I think we did that right away in the first period.”
The Panthers (4-5, 3-3 MASCAC) are breaking in a whopping 15 freshmen, the result of graduating a big senior class that set the bar higher than it’s ever been set here. Eight were in the lineup Saturday, with Economos, Callahan (Londonderry, N.H.) and Woody accounting for two-thirds of the goals.
“It’s just more confidence with them,” said defenseman Dave Walters, one of the team’s three seniors. “It took a few games for some guys just to get adjusted to the speed. But you can tell they’re confident with the puck, making some plays and playing with the capability we knew they had.”
Walters is one of four players on the roster — with senior forward Phil Arnone, junior forward Mike Freitag and junior defenseman Zach Sarig — who were on the ice for the program’s first (and, so far, only) NCAA tournament game in 2012, a loss here to Wentworth that capped the best season in program history.
The Panthers finished first last year but lost on home ice to UMass-Dartmouth in the MASCAC final, forfeiting the auto bid. Then they graduated a dozen players, resulting in a makeover that has them focused on improvement as much as November and December wins.
“The learning curve has been upward,” said Russell. “Like Dave said, every single day we get better. The biggest thing is just for these guys to understand what it takes. They don’t know what it takes. They’ve played at high levels but the college game is centered around hard work.”
Economos was playing in the NAHL for the Corpus Christi IceRays last year. He knew of another Midwestern guy, forward Ian McGilvrey, who’d just committed to Plymouth and he soon followed suit.
“I started talking to Coach; he saw me play a couple times,” said Economos. “I came up for a visit and loved the school, loved the rink and loved the guys. It was a perfect fit.”
A 6-foot-1, 200-pounder who can skate, Economos scored his first goal in a 4-2 loss to Framingham State on Thursday. His two against Westfield State (4-6, 4-2 MASCAC) made it a three-goal week and flashed the potential that could make him a big name here down the road.
“A big body that plays a full sheet,” said Russell. “He plays just as hard on the defensive end as he does on the offensive end. He’s the power forward we’ve been missing some years.”
Like every other team in a wide-open MASCAC this year, the Panthers have issues. Youth is one and goaltending is another. But it’s days like Saturday that make it seem like everything will work out fine.
Playing in front of a big crowd of 700, on the annual Salute the Troops Day that honored the memory of three soldiers with Plymouth or Plymouth State ties — Lt. Scott Miller, Capt. Dan DiCenzo and Specialist Marc Decoteau — the Panthers took the ice in their once-a-year special camouflage jerseys, and then went out and played their best game of the season.
“We’ve had some bad puck luck the last couple games and it kind of turned around,” said Walters. “Our game was getting there and today we played the most complete game we’ve played all year.”
Player of the Week
Dave Cunningham, soph., G, Amherst
The Arlington, Mass., and Belmont Hill product gave his team every chance to win in a 1-0 loss to his standout counterpart, Sean Dougherty of Williams, on Saturday, making 28 saves. Including a 4-1 win over Middlebury a night earlier, he stopped 51 of 53 shots.
Game of the Week
Wentworth at UMass-Boston, Friday, 7 p.m.
Two-time reigning champs in the ECAC Northeast are 3-6-1 overall and would love to close out a disappointing first half with a win at explosive UMB.
NEHJ Division 3 Power Rankings
1. Williams (5-0-2, 4-0-2 NESCAC)
Only three teams in Division 3 haven’t been beaten. Plattsburgh and Adrian are the others.
2. Norwich (7-1-2, 6-0-1 ECAC East)
Shane Gorman had the overtime game-winner against Skidmore, than set up two in a 6-2 win over Castleton.
3. Babson (9-2, 5-1 ECAC East)
The road may be taking its toll on the Beavers, who were stunned by the University of New England on Saturday, 3-1.
4. Amherst (6-2, 5-1
Brendan Burke’s (Westwood, Mass.) two goals fueled 4-1 win over conference rival Middlebury on Friday.
5. UMass-Boston (6-1-2, 3-1-2 ECAC East)
Needed a pair of third-period goals from Mike Kuhn (Holbrook, Mass.) to escape Southern Maine with a 3-2 win on Saturday.
6. Trinity (6-2, 3-1
John Hawkrigg’s hat trick fueled a bounce-back, 6-3 win at Manhattanville on Saturday.
7. Nichols (6-1-2, 3-1-1 ECAC
Only action last week saw Frank Butler (East Haven, Conn.) salvage a tie with Southern New Hampshire with an extra-attacker goal with 14 seconds left in regulation.
8. Bowdoin (5-3-1, 2-3-1
Will the real Polar Bears stand up, please?
9. Johnson & Wales
(7-3, 3-2-0 ECAC Northeast)
Even the losses have been competitive for sophomore forward Cody Sarmiento and the Wildcats.
State (5-3-1, 4-1-1 MASCAC)
Nick Cafrelli (47 saves) stole a 4-2 win for the surprising Rams at Plymouth State on Thursday, moving his team into first place.