With the regular season over, I stopped by practice on Wednesday to catch up with the co-captains, coach Ron Fogarty and a couple other players. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but there’s a lot I was asking about (like faceoffs and the power play).
But before I go there, I have to say if Princeton is going to beat anyone in the playoffs this year, it would be Clarkson. If the Tigers play well, especially on the defensive end, they have a chance of at least taking one game. But there’s very little margin for error defensively. Having a healthy Colton Phinney should really help though, as he was playing hurt during their trip to North Country a few weeks ago.
The tie against Brown was really big. You could feel the sense of relief that, after so many times down one goal with Phinney pulled, Princeton finally got the game-tying goal. It also marked just the second time since the 5-4 loss to Colgate when Princeton scored more than a goal in a game.
With the playoffs starting today, here’s a quick rundown of some key news, notes and quotes heading into tonight’s matchup at Cheel Arena:
• Princeton’s power play is still struggling
The Tigers have one of the worst power plays, converting 12.3 percent of their chances. It’s something the Tigers have also been working on in practice.
“There’s two things with the power play that you need,” Fogarty said. “You need productivity and we’ve been at 11 percent. I think it’s not that good. But the biggest thing that we need to do is get shots and generate some momentum against their top defensemen and their top defensive forwards. You don’t have to score, but you have to get some momentum off of the two-minute power play.
“That’s our goal as well too, to create more shots. We’re averaging like a half a shot a power play, which is horrific. We have to try to get three or four shots each power play just to create that momentum and force the goaltender to make saves.”
• And about those faceoffs…
Faceoffs, or the inability to win them, hinder power plays. It’s really tough – and I’ve seen this with Princeton – to establish zone time on the power play when you’re losing the faceoff, the puck gets cleared and you have to spend that time regrouping.
“It’s everything. I think with faceoffs, when you’re running at one-third of the time getting it, 52 percent, 53 percent in the national hockey league is great so what’s 32 percent in college hockey?” Fogarty said. “It’s awful. The one area we’re doing a better job is using more of a line faceoff. The two wingers are helping out more because of our inability to win faceoffs center vs. center, so they’re doing a better job to help it out.”
The Tigers have a nation-worst 40.8 faceoff winning percentage. On the team, Ben Foster and Garrett Skrbich have taken the most faceoffs. Foster has won 41.7 percent and Skrbich has won 40 percent.
“It’s awful. Our faceoffs probably the worst in the league and that’s been one of our attention to detail this week in practice and moving forward this week,” Fogarty said. That’s so important to get that first possession off of a faceoff and put people in a set position. That has to improve. We are bad.”
• Colton Phinney being healthy is huge
Phinney wasn’t playing his best hockey in February, which made sense after we found out how hurt he was and how much it limited him in practices. Fogarty said that one game he sat, which was a loss at St. Lawrence, helped him heal. So Phinney was still hurt when the Tigers fell at Clarkson. And he’s looked a lot better since that game off.
While we’re on the subject of Phinney, he’s 29 saves away from reaching 1,000 for the season.
• Hayden Anderson back in the lineup
Anderson has played a lot the second half of the season. He’s missed just two games since January, filling in on a defense missing Kevin Liss. Anderson’s role is especially important now, since there’s no update on Matt Nelson’s condition yet. He left Saturday’s game with an injury, forcing reserve Stuart Pomeroy (who played as a forward in that game) to return to defense. Granted, blueliner Tommy Davis was missing because of a suspension, but Nelson’s absences would leave the defense shorthanded.
Anderson has played in the last four games, and was playing for both games against Clarkson this year.
“He knows his limitations,” Fogarty said. “He’s a defenseman that knows what he can do with and without the puck and does it a hundred percent of the time with stuff that he does well. He moves it quickly he doesn’t try to beat someone one on one, Hayden looks for the open man quickly … and distributes it effectively. He’s been very consistent for us.”
• All the close games
The Tigers have played in 14 one-goal losses (not including opponent empty net goals.)
“Our guys have stayed with it throughout the year, have competed for 60 minutes so that’s the big thing,” Fogarty said. “It’s easy to cut corners, it’s easy to formulate a different game plan because things aren’t working. I’ve said we’ve had 14 losses by one goal where we pulled the goalie, that’s by far better than the five we had last year.
“We’re in more of the games and there’s where sometimes you get frustrated as a player because you see how close you are and you’re not getting over the hump. Bt it’s been great improvement throughout the course of time over the year and hopefully we can break through.
• Struggling offense
As mentioned above, the Tigers have just seven goals over the last seven games.
“We need to score goals. Besides the Colgate game we’re nine goals in the past nine games so we have to get back on the scoresheet,” Fogarty said. “Winning faceoff, taking shots can help that out.”
• Close to home
Senior co-captain Kyle Rankin is excited to go back to Clarkson.
“I really enjoy playing up there,” Rankin said. “It’s close to home, it’s a good atmosphere. You’re right we do have that playoff experience there. We also know what it’s like to be up one game in a series there. If we find ourselves in a similar situation this time we know the importance of Game 2 and closing things out.”
• The last time…
Rankin talked about being up in the series. That was thanks to an overtime goal from Andrew Ammon in 2014, a senior back then.
• Alex Riche coming into his own
At one point, the forward was taken off the all-freshman line. Fogarty wanted him to be more of his own player and take control of things. Now Riche is back with Ryan Kuffner and Max Veronneau.
“He had two great scoring chances there against Brown,” Fogarty said. “Yeah he’s taken ownership of that line more. Obviously his number’s don’t support that but his effort is much better the second half and better the last quarter.”
• Closing notes…
If Princeton is healthy, or at least somewhat healthy (Matt Nelson being back would help), the Tigers can win. They don’t have a great record of winning at Cheel Arena in the playoffs, but I think this team has a stronger foundation than the one that took a game from Clarkson two years ago.