No Style Points Here

Ryan Thomas

Norwich University and Middlebury College are great examples of white collar teams the Eastern College Athletic Conference East offers. They are svelte and swift, built for speed and agility, the BMW’s and Porsches of Division III hockey. They are littered with Canadian-born skaters who use their collective abilities to spread their opponent’s defense thin, creating susceptibilities.

UMass Boston, on the other end of the spectrum, is the epitome of a blue collar team. They are a grizzled collection of mostly Junior League players, hardy and durable, capable of playing the physical game, night-in and night-out. They are the New England plow truck that takes the licks, yet keeps on pushing through the toughest conditions. They thrive playing tough, grinding, in-the-corners hockey.

These two contrasting styles of hockey will no doubt meet this weekend when UMass Boston, the number eight seed in the ECAC East, clashes with the number one seed, which will presumably be Norwich. As of February 19, Norwich held a one-point lead over Castleton State College and a two-point lead over New England College with two games to go. Odds are that the Beacons will be traveling to Northfield, Vermont to play in Norwich’s Kreitzberg Arena, one of the most intimidating venues in all of Division III hockey.

Ask Peter Belisle, UMass Boston’s fourth-year head coach, and he’ll speak for his blue collar boys and their willingness to play the best team out there, even if it is in a hostile environment. “I don’t care who we play at this point,” he said recently. “[Earlier this season] we took Norwich to OT, we played Castleton [State] to a 3-2 game…I feel good about us in the playoffs.”

That swagger, that confidence that Belisle trademarks on his teams, resurfaced last weekend when the Beacons limped into Middlebury College sporting a 3-12-1 conference record while losing 11 of their last 13 overall. The Beacons stunned the Panthers – at the time ranked fifth in’s Division III men’s hockey poll – 3-2 in overtime. The crisp, physical style that gave UMass Boston their well-deserved tough-to-play-against, no-matter-the-record label was on hand for all to see.

For the second time in two seasons, the Beacons threw their best punch at Middlebury and defeated the Panthers in a one-goal game, with Eric Tufman playing the role of heavyweight champion both times. Last February 16, Tufman scored the go-ahead goal at 18:21 of the third period that gave the Beacons a 4-3 win on home ice. On February 14, 2009, Tufman scored just 44 seconds into overtime to send the Beacons home ecstatic and re-energized. Belisle called the win “a huge morale booster for us. [That game] really solidified that we are a good hockey team and we can beat anybody. We proved it against one of the best teams in the country in their rink.”

Instrumental in UMass Boston’s win was the ability of its top line – consisting of Matt Atsoff, Kris Kranzky and Eric Tufman – to create and capitalize on scoring opportunities. Reunited for the past four games after being separated midseason to create a spark that never caught, Belisle was very encouraged by what he saw in the Middlebury game. “I think Tufman has really stepped it up and that has helped so much. He’s playing better.

“On the winning goal, Atsoff goes in and plays the body like he can, he’s a power forward. He plays the body, Kranzky picks up the loose puck, he feeds Tufman in the slot and it’s all over.”

At 5-foot-8, 190 pounds and tough as nails, Matt Atsoff is the prototypical player for the brand of hockey Belisle wants his team to play. Atsoff “does the dirty work,” fore checks intensely and digs pucks out in the attacking zone. Guys like Atsoff need to control the pace of games when the playoffs start because Belisle knows he can’t get into a track meet with a team like Norwich that likes to run-and-gun and spread the ice out. “[Norwich] has some skill guys, some Canadian guys that I don’t think like to get hit so we’ve got to play that blue collar type of game, because that’s [who] we are,” Belisle said. “We’ve got to be tough to play against, play tight, finish every check.

“We play a simple, hardnosed brand of hockey. If we’re tough to play against and keep [Norwich] to the outside and don’t let their skill guys go Globetrotters on us, we have a good chance to win the hockey game.”

Ryan Thomas can be reached at [email protected]