After their first official, two-hour practice, co-captains Mike Ambrosia and Kyle Rankin entered the team’s kitchen. Ambrosia slid off the counter and walked over to the Princeton hockey fridge and pulled out a bottle of water after the team’s tough practice.
For the co-captains, this is their last year of Princeton hockey. But it’s just the second under a new regime, one that promises to bring the program back to NCAA prominence.
“It’s the rebuilding stage of being able to strike now,” Rankin said. “I think last year was a rebuilding year, but we’re kind of working off the continuum. We’re in a position now where we can strike and win games and get this program back to where we need to be.”
Taking the ice under a new head coach, Ron Fogarty, and new systems, Princeton accrued a 4-23-3 record last season. The Tigers also finished last in the ECAC, struggling through a year of growing pains. But Princeton improved later in the season and played in a couple of closer-than-expected playoff losses to Dartmouth.
“You have to put the foundation in place, and we did that last year without cutting corners and making sure that it was really solidified,” Fogarty said.
“Twenty-one players know what to expect on and off the ice. On the ice with our systems, our structure, supporting the puck and now we can build from that. If that wasn’t in place last year, we can never forward and try to implement offensive systems to allow them opportunities to score goals.”
While the Tigers have several seasons ahead before they re-enter the NCAA tournament, the term rebuilding no longer applies to the team.
This year it’s time for the next step.
“It’s not rebuilding,” Fogarty said. “It’s more of a continuation of last year. And it took a long time for the new systems to take place because they [were] accustomed to something that was ingrained for two, three years.”
As the Tigers hope to move up from the ECAC’s 12th spot, the team will have a challenge in a tough conference that includes strong Yale, Quinnipiac and Harvard teams.
New Jersey native Ambrosia has been in this situation before, although nearly five years ago in the USHL. Back then, he captained the Youngstown Phantoms to a turnaround season and a playoff berth.
“It’s kind of like a similar situation, but I don’t think we like to compare from last year to this year,” Ambrosia said. “I think it’s pretty useless. [There are] new faces, new lines, new systems and we’re very optimistic. There’s a lot of energy and excitement in the room and that’s what you need going into a season.”
Last season, the Tigers played in 17 games that were decided by two goals or less. Both of Princeton’s ECAC wins were decided by a goal.
“Right now I don’t know what their identity is, but I do know that I would love to win a 2-1 game,” Fogarty said. “Just the goaltenders in this league and the teams are so strong in the ECAC, there’s no nights off.”
Part of the next step in this process is scoring.
“We want to be a team that has the capability of scoring a goal earlier than last year,” Fogarty said. “If we can score a goal in the first period or be the team to score the first goal, it would change the dynamic, really, of the game.
“That’s what we have to do, is try to be a team that can score the first goal. That would help us for the rest of the 60 minutes.”
Up front, the Tigers didn’t lose much of their offensive presence. Jonathan Liau returns as the team’s leading scorer with 14 points, while Rankin and Ben Foster each added 10 last year. But the Tigers graduated Tucker Brockett and defenseman Aaron Ave, who contributed eight points each.
Ave’s loss was big for the blue line, which also graduated Tom Kroshus. The defense has four returners including Joe Grabowski and Tommy Davis, the team’s top pair. Matt Nelson, Quin Pompi and freshman Josh Teves should also see playing time.
“We need all of them to improve. There’s a lot of L’s in the column there that we have to change around,” Fogarty said. “That’s our last line before they get to the goaltenders, so with Tommy and Joey they did a great job last year. But we expect the other guys to step up equally or more than those two to give us a shot to win games day in and day out.”
Fogarty said he needs the freshmen to contribute this season. That includes junior hockey standouts Max Veronneau, Ryan Kuffner and Alex Riche, as well as Spencer Kryczka.
“They’re excellent hockey players and more importantly they’re great guys [and] great for the room,” Ambrosia said. “They bring a lot of energy, a lot of positive attributes to the team. I think they’re going to contribute in a lot of ways to our team [and] to the school and I can’t wait to get going with them.”
Now that Princeton has finished implementing systems and establishing the defense, the Tigers are trying to add more offense. Last year Princeton ranked last in the country with an average of 1.30 goals per game.
“This year we’re focusing more on getting quality chances, quality shots,” Ambrosia said. “You see a lot of teams throw pucks on net from every angle and I don’t think think we necessarily want to do that. But we want to get all five guys involved skating, shooting pucks, creating quality chances. If we do that, we’re going to get more luck this year and score more goals.
“At the end of the day w have a fantastic goalie in Colton who’s the backbone of our team. I think we took big strides last year in our defensive zone, so if we could average two, three goals a game, I think we have chance to win.”
Phinney is a big piece of Princeton’s ability to find success, as he was last year. The junior will be Princeton’s go-to goaltender, backed up by Ben Halford and Austin Shaw. The team’s starter last year, Phinney appeared in 29 games and recorded a .910 save percentage.
“In my opinion he’s the best goalie in the conference,” Rankin said. “He stood on his head very night for us. Especially trying to play a more offensive system, if an odd man rush does go back the other way you have a guy like that in your net. It’s huge for the confidence of all five guys in front of him and he knows we’re going to battle our hardest for him every night.”
The Tigers open up their season at the Capital City Classic, where they’ll face Ivy League rival Yale. Along with its usual ECAC opponents, Princeton will travel to Penn State, Holy Cross and Maine. The Tigers will host AIC and the U.S. National Team U-18 program.
“Our biggest strength right now is probably just the energy that’s around the locker room,” Rankin said. “In years past, guys have been a little hesitant going into years and wondering what’s ahead.
“But right now we’re just looking forward and looking to build off what we had going last year, especially the final series against Dartmouth. It was a great energy in the room, everyone [was] excited to get going and I think when you play that way, within a structure, things are going to pay off for you.”