Men's Hockey: Cashing in on man-up situations
The men’s hockey team, even with a few injuries, hung with the big dogs in college hockey in the first half of the 2012-13 season. Currently tied for fifth in the ECAC, one of the deepest conferences in Division I, Princeton (3-6-3 overall, 2-3-3 ECAC) has held its own against a number of nationally ranked teams.
The Tigers’ not-so-secret weapon: their power-play units and, after last weekend, their penalty kill as well.
“Our penalty kill has moved into the top 10,” head coach Bob Prier said after Princeton forced No. 9 Quinnipiac to go 0-for-9 on power plays in two games last weekend. (Other teams have since passed the Tigers, dropping them to 12th.) “That’s big. Having a solid penalty kill in many cases is more of a threat than being dominant on the power play.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, went 0-for-8, dropping from fourth to ninth in the national power-play rankings, converting 10 of 46 opportunities for a rate of 21.7 percent. But by killing 10 of the Bobcats’ penalties, Princeton moved into third for the nation’s best combined special teams, sitting only behind No. 1 Boston College and No. 14 Union, an impressive statistic for a non-ranked team and a sign the Tigers could be a force to be reckoned with in the latter half of the season.
“We had some bids on the power play, in spite of the 0-for-8,” Prier said of last weekend’s series. “Our guys got some shots off, but we were missing some guys typically on the special teams, like [junior defenseman] Alec Rush and [junior forward] Andrew Ammon —a kid from each of the units — broke up the chemistry a bit. Then we had [sophomore forward] Tyler Maugeri, who was playing extremely ill, so he was not quite at his best. Those kinds of situations are obviously never an excuse, but we have a very talented group of guys, and we are in a fairly good spot now; I think we’ll be in an even better position in the second half of the season,” Prier said.
Princeton relies on two separate units to execute its power plays. The first, when all of its players are healthy, is composed of junior forward Andrew Calof, Maugeri, Ammon and senior defensemen Eric Meland and Michael Sdao. The other unit that has contributed to the Tigers’ power-play success consists of Rush, junior defenseman Kevin Ross, freshman forward Michael Zajac and two of a rotating cast of four other forwards.
The sheer number of athletes involved in the power play certainly contributes to Princeton’s depth, as does its variety of plays.
“There’s no one thing. That’s why it has been successful, to be honest,” Prier said. “There are the big-goal guys who have gotten a one-timer off a nice wheelhouse pass from Maugeri. Or Calof is good at spinning off the neck and taking the puck down low. Or there’s Sdao hitting a one-timer, or Maugeri and Calof connecting on 2-on-1 on the rush ... These guys are able to execute time and again.”
The Tigers are especially effective with the “Umbrella” — a power-play strategy in which they set up three players high near the blue line, forming a triangle, while two players hang low in the slot.
“Ammon, Sdao and Calof work options out of that. Sdao is great up at the top. He has more velocity on his shot than anyone in the league,” Prier said. “Then we have the agile, quick, explosive kid that can take it to the net down low in Calof. In those two guys, we have one of the top defenseman and one of the top forwards in league. Together, that really makes things click.”
Calof, in particular, dominates the power-play conversions. He has scored three power-play goals in 12 games, placing him in an 11-way tie for 21st individually.
“Calof is in the category of being an elite player, an elite individual in college hockey. He just needs to take a next step now,” Prier said. “He’s a top-tier player in country, but he does a lot of good things away from the puck as well. His ability doesn’t just lie in his ability to take shots. He’s also good at driving the net and making more space for his linemates. And he’s only a junior ... When he changes gears, there’s no one on the other side that can hang with him.”
With winter break approaching, Princeton believes it will strengthen its special-teams dominance even further and convert that skill into more wins. The Tigers will return to action at the Catamount Cup in Vermont on Dec. 29-30.
“Once we have a little more depth back and a little more practice and experience, we should be able to improve on the power play and the penalty kill,” Prier said. “We’ll definitely be able to make a crack at that top 10 in the country for both once again.”
Princeton will return in 2013 to Baker Rink, where it will play the majority of its games for the rest of the season, with the most difficult part of the schedule in the rearview mirror and with a fueled and rested special teams.