Team of the Week: Princeton
With the high expectations entering the season, 6-10-3 was not where Princeton figured to be in mid-January.
Last season, after three years of winning no more than six games, the Tigers enjoyed a breakthrough. In coach Ron Fogarty's third year at the helm, Princeton won 15 games, and came into this season returning a lot of high-end talent, many of whom are being coveted as free agents by NHL general managers.
But after getting outscored 11-1 in a weekend in Central New York, there it stood, flailing away, a stretch of four goals in four games.
Recently, the switch was flipped. Princeton is now on a four-game winning streak in which it has scored 20 goals. And it had three wins last week alone, including at Quinnipiac, and a thrilling come-from-behind win over highly-rated Clarkson.
And this surge has come without standout junior defenseman Josh Teves. He's a name that probably slips under the radar for most college hockey fans, but he's every bit as dynamic a backliner as anyone in the country.
"At least another weekend," Fogarty said of Teves' timetable for return. "His tenacity is missed. But we had guys step up. That's a sign of where the program is going. To lose a big pillar of your team and someone else can step up and do the job for us."
Friday, it looked like Princeton's mini-surge might unravel before it really began. It jumped out to a 3-0 lead on St. Lawrence, only to see the last-place Saints score four straight goals. But Ryan Kuffner, another of those under-the-radar-only-because-they-play-at-Princeton types, scored to tie it, his second of the night and 17th of the season. Kuffner then completed the hat trick with a goal 4:16 into overtime.
Forward to Saturday, where Clarkson came in angry off a loss to Quinnipiac. And the Golden Knights seemed to have the game in control after going up 3-2 in the second period.
"I don't think we were taking care of the puck well. We were flipping pucks and they were countering quickly," Fogarty said. "They're fast and skiled. We turned it over and they hit a post that would've extended the lead. And then we came down and tied it up. It could've been a two-goal loss. So we're still learning to manage the puck. We got better in the third than we were in the second."
Princeton dodged some bullets, however, when Clarkson hit a couple posts. Princeton also staved off a 5-on-3, which came at the same time senior captain Eric Robinson was whistled for a 10-minute misconduct for mouthing off to an official from the bench.
Robinson then came out of the box in the third period, and was tenacious the rest of the way.
"He knew he had to," Fogarty said of his third-period performance. "That's tough. We're trying to nip it in the bud. We try to teach discipline. It's an emotional game, and every game is big to be where we need to be. But he responded. He's a captain. He had a huge block late. It's learning how to handle adversity. If you mess up, make your next action a great one for the team, and he did."
With time winding down, David Hallisey was able to jam in a rebound to tie the game. And then Princeton got a power play, and defenseman Reid Yocum, on the PP because of Teves' absence, banged in a loose puck with five minutes to go for the game winner.
"It was a broken play," Yocum said. "There was a little tic-tac-toe in the corner, and I got to the front, and somehow put it in."
"We knew Clarkson was a powerhouse, but we match up well against them, just speed-wise. We like to play that game. We put the pedal to the floor every shift and got it done."
The one area Princeton has the most room for improvement is in goal, where freshman Ryan Ferland was anointed the starter early on. He's been solid, with a .908 save percentage, but is still growing into the position. Friday against St. Lawrence, he was pulled, and senior backup Ben Halford got the win in relief. But Ferland, at an even 6-feet tall from Franklin, Mass., was back out there Saturday night.
"He played well 5-on-5. I spoke to him last night. A great goalie bounces back after a tough night, and he bounced back. He made a couple great saves, too," Fogarty said.
Princeton has no drafted players, but juniors Kuffner and Teves draw the attention of scouts every night, as does another junior, Max Veronneau. He leads the team in points with 32, and is Kuffner's setup man. He probably gets the most attention of any of them. Robinson is a big body who also gets looksl along with sophomore Jackson Cressey.
The high-end talent is there, but younger players who fill the secondary lines are also starting to step up as well. Sophomore fourth-liner Joey Fallon, from Long Island, has only played 10 games this season, but was a pest all weekend.
"Joey Fallon had a great weekend," Fogarty said. "He was a little ball of hate, to coin a phrase from Pat Verbeek. He's tough. His center of gravity is in his ankle. He brings grittiness."
The surge has put Princeton in position to host a first-round playoff series. The Tigers are tied for the sixth spot in the ECAC now, two points out of fifth. However, Yale is ninth, just two points behind that, and a slip could mean losing home ice.
"We're not listening to outside noise," Fogarty said. "We saw projections to where you're supposed to be. You hear you're supposed to be good. But withou the work ethic and smart hockey ... we're playing smart hockey (now)."