Princeton men’s hockey will travel to Clarkson for the first round of the ECAC playoffs. It’s the second time in the past three years the Tigers will be making the trip, as they fell to the Golden Knights in three games in the 2013-14 season.
“[We had] 29 pop quizzes going into the main test,” Princeton head coach Ron Fogarty said. “This is the main test. Our goal this year was give ourselves an opportunity to win a playoff series and we’re trying to do everything from Day 1 to now to put us in the best position to make that occur.”
The teams split the season series. Princeton came away with the 3-0 win at home in November and dropped a 5-2 decision at Clarkson in February. Freshman defenseman Josh Teves has three points against the Golden Knights and Max Veronneau has two goals.
“Our underneath positioning was poor [in February],” Ron Fogarty said. “They had a couple one hitters, rushes down the ice and we were out of position, so we have to make sure that our five guys are really patient positioning this weekend.”
The Tigers just snapped a nine-game losing streak with a season-ending tie to Brown. Princeton’s last ECAC win was Dec. 5 against Yale, when the Tigers swept the Bears and Bulldogs. Despite the losses, many of Princeton’s games this season have been close.
“Because the core has improved, it’s brought everyone up a level here,” Fogarty said. When I look back at even our first games this season in Trenton compared to now, I just see great improvement from all. And that’s important that the group continues to improve.”
Clarkson is on a two-game winning streak after sweeping Harvard and Dartmouth. The Golden Knights posted a 11-5-1 record in January, partly thanks to Greg Lewis’ play in net. Lewis has a save percentage of .924 and has been the team’s starter since January. The Golden Knights allow 2.50 goals per game
“I mean they’re a hard-hitting team, they have good defensemen, they like to jump up in the play and they like to pinch down the wall,” co-captain Kyle Rankin said. “You got to give credit where credit’s due, but at the same time it’s going to come down to who wants it more. Our forwards are going to have to find a way to outwork those guys.”
The Tigers have had some success against Clarkson lately, splitting last year’s season series as well. And the Tigers also pulled out to a 1-0 series lead two years ago in the playoffs with an overtime win.
“The one positive that this group has is Colton Phinney won his first playoff game up in Clarkson,” Fogarty said. “So they’re familiar with that and winning, how to win and hopefully we can duplicate that twice this weekend.”
Clarkson’s offense averages 2.68 goals per game, led by Sam Vigneault’s 11 goals and 25 points.
“They have guys that can finish and we have to make sure that they’re going to travel 200 feet and they’re going to have to work for the scoring opportunities,” Fogarty said. “And that’s where we have to make sure that we’re patient in the zone and don’t double up and then once we get the puck that we maintain.”
The Tigers average 1.93 goals per game. Ryan Kuffner and Max Veronneau lead Princeton in scoring with 1 and 15 points, respectively. They form a line with classmate Alex Riche, who doesn’t score as much but has been playing better the second half of the season.
“He had two great scoring chances there against Brown,” Fogarty said. “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.”
In net, Phinney has started every game but one, missed due to an injury. The recently named Second Team All-Ivy selection has a career-high save percentage of .923 this season. Princeton allows 3.21 goals per game.
Phinney recorded his first career shutout in the 3-0 win against Clarkson. He was also in net during the loss to the Golden Knights, but wasn’t healthy.
“They were two of our better games,” co-captain Mike Ambrosia said. “It was 2-2 going into the third period and they had three quick goals, obviously some nice plays. We let up some second chances and we know that Colton’s going to stop that first puck almost every time, he’s a fantastic goalie and that’s an advantage that we have.
“But we need to make sure that we don’t give up those second, third opportunities, because then he doesn’t necessarily have a shot if we do that. So if we play sound defensively and if we can bury some pucks, we have a good chance of winning.”
Another key for Princeton will be faceoffs. The Tigers are the worst team in the country on faceoffs, winning 40.8 percent of their chances.
“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.”
The Tigers also may not have a full roster heading into the playoffs, as they were shorthanded on Saturday night. They dressed 16 players and defenseman Matt Nelson let the game with an injury, reducing the roster to 15. Forwards David Hallisey, Max Becker and Spencer Kryzcka missed the game. So did defenseman Tommy Davis, who was suspended by the ECAC, and Kevin Liss. To fill in, Stuart Pomeroy played forward and Marlon Sabo played returned to the blue line.
On Wednesday, Fogarty said Friday’s roster hasn’t been set and that some players are day-to-day.
“We’ve had some defense who’ve played forward and yeah some forwards have seen some shifts on D,” Rankin said. “Everyone has got to step up a little when there’s injuries. It’s nothing uncommon in hockey. And you have to kind of expect it at this point of the year. Overall I’m just most pleased with the willingness of guys to play wherever and do whatever they can to help the team win.”
The Tigers haven’t won a playoff series since 2008-09, which was also Princeton’s last NCAA tournament appearance.
“There’s a really good morale in the locker room,” junior Garrett Skrbich said. “I think we get along really well and play for each other and I think we’ve got some really skilled guys, we’ve got some consistent guys, we’ve got a well-rounded team. I think that our record doesn’t show how well we’ve been playing this season.”