Men's Hockey: Fully healthy, men look to bounce back
For the men’s hockey team, its chance to regain dominance on the ice after an exasperating 2011-12 crusade that ended 9-16-7 hinges on the Tigers’ greater familiarity with one another and their health.
“We lost three seniors and brought in five freshmen, so we have two more players,” said sophomore forward Aaron Kesselman, who notched four goals and three assists before a serious ACL injury ended his rookie season in January. “Plus, last year our team was made up of mostly underclassmen — 17 of us. Now we only have 11 or so. That transition brings a lot more maturity. A lot of guys on our team are veterans now.”
Princeton will look to get scoring from three leading upperclassmen on the forward line. Junior Andrew Calof led the 2011-12 team with 17 goals and 31 points, while junior captain Jack Berger added 22 points and senior assistant captain Rob Kleebaum had 21. The trio led Princeton to 91 shots on goal in a pair of exhibition games against Guelph last weekend.
Though the Canadian foes won both contests by a slim margin, 3-2 and 6-5, they only managed 74 shots on Princeton’s cage.
“In the second game, their team and ours scored a combined 11 goals. On offense, that’s wonderful to see but on defense, we have to look at reducing our opponent’s scoring opportunities even more,” junior defenseman Alec Rush said. “We’ve been working on that in practice this week; that will get tighter with time. It’s all about everyone learning the new systems we have in place.”
Rush may be one of the team’s offensive weapons, as he scored two goals in Saturday’s shootout, striking in the first and second periods.
Between the pipes, too, the Tigers will have multiple players to lean on. The top two — senior Mike Condon, who posted a 2.88 goals against average in 2011-12, and junior Sean Bonar, who was at 3.17 — returned to the ice with several minutes of play with their teammates under their belts. Sophomore Ryan Benitez, an unrecognized presence in the 2011-12 season, saw time on the ice in both games against Guelph, stopping a number of shots in each performance. “Benitez is really pushing the two of them to be even better,” Rush said.
The problem of having several options for six starting spots is perhaps a new one for Princeton coming off its 2011-12 season. Then, the roster comprised 26 players, but nearly a dozen of them incurred problematic injuries throughout the year.
“Last year we couldn’t even field a whole lineup for a few weeks. So many people were hurt — certainly not the way you want to play,” Rush said. “We worried about really going hard in practice because we overexerted our limited lineup at times, but that led us to being really tired in games ... I think we’ll get that under control this time. We know each other and the game a lot better.”
But perhaps the most central figure to the Tigers’ newfound familiarity is one who will not once skate onto the ice this year. That figure is head coach Bob Prier, a former St. Lawrence player and assistant who took over Princeton’s program after Guy Gadowsky left at the end of 2010-11.
“Last year was the first year with a new coach. It was new for everyone, and I think that got us off to a slow start,” Rush said. “Now we don’t have to take time to figure our new coach out. He knows us. We know what’s expected of us. Rather than taking the first part of the year to feel things out, we are going to hit the ice and start playing right away.”
Emerging from its preseason weekend, the Tigers hope they can improve on last year’s record, but they recognize the barriers ahead. Princeton placed 11th in the preseason coaches’ poll, the same place it finished in 2012; No. 8 Union and No. 7 Cornell took the top two spots.
“What I took away from this past weekend is that I need to stop getting hurt. But overall, we need to capitalize on our opportunities,” Kesselman said. “In our Friday game we only had two goals but 57 shots. We need to put more in the net than that ... In the third period, we definitely brought renewed energy to the ice, but we need to be more consistent in capitalizing on our scoring chances and finishing the puck.”
The reformed Princeton will have its first regular-season test this weekend against Brown and either Dartmouth or Yale in the Ivy League Shootout. The Tigers will return home after fall break to face a pair of their biggest rivals, Cornell and Colgate, to kick off ECAC play.
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