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The men’s hockey team enters the homestretch of 2014 this weekend as it travels to Minnesota State University for a two-game out-of-conference battle. After a respite for winter break, the Tigers will then take on Eastern College Athletic Conference foe Quinnipiac University in a home-and-home series just two days removed from Christmas.

The Tigers (2-9-1, 2-7 ECAC) dropped two tightly contested games in last weekend’s Ivy homestand, falling to then-No. 9 Harvard 4-3 and to Dartmouth 4-2. While the Orange and Black has not been able to string together wins this season, the last two series — both at home — have shown improvement for the Princeton side and first-year head coach Ron Fogarty.

Before righting the ship with a two-game split with Michigan State University two weeks ago, the Tigers were reeling. Injuries to five key players — including two captains — had taken the wind out of the sails of the young team, and the offense was averaging a measly one goal per game. The return of forwards sophomore Kyle Rankin and junior alternate captain Mike Ambrosia seemed to ignite the offense, which has now produced more goals (10) in the last four games than it had in the previous eight (8).

While injuries have forced Fogarty and his staff to mix and match forward lines and defensive pairings, one constant has been sophomore goaltender Colton Phinney. The Chatham, N.J. product has started 11 of Princeton’s first 12 games, making 391 saves on 426 shots (a .918 save percentage). Phinney stopped a career-high 51 shots against Harvard last Friday night, giving his team a chance to pull off the upset over the now-No. 5 team in the nation. For the Tigers to have success in the two upcoming series against formidable opponents, Phinney will have to play close to or at the level that he did against the Crimson last weekend.

The Tigers will have their work cut out for them as they travel to the great lakes region to take on Western Collegiate Hockey Association foe Minnesota State (12-4). As evidenced by their No. 3 ranking in USCHO’s national Division I poll this week, the Mavericks are one of the nation’s elite teams this year. Matt Leitner (5-12-17), Teddy Blueger (7-9-16) and leading goal-scorer Bryce Gervais (10-6-16) have led the squad from the offensive end so far this season. Goaltender Stephon Williams boasts a goal against average of 1.86 entering this weekend’s play, good for No. 10 in the country. The Mavericks, winners of seven of their last eight, will provide a stern test for Princeton, who will take on a team ranked in the top five for the second time this season, having previously lost to then-No.4 Colgate 5-1.

On Dec. 27, Princeton will travel to Hamden, Conn. for the first night of a home-and-home series against No. 15 Quinnipiac (10-5-1, 6-2 ECAC). The Bobcats currently sit atop the ECAC standings with 12 points, tied with Harvard. Sam Anas (10-9-19) leads the Bobcat attack along with Landon Smith (7-9-16). Like the Tigers, Quinnipiac squared off against Harvard and Dartmouth last weekend, losing 5-2 to the Crimson while besting the Big Green 2-1 in overtime.

2014 has been a year of transition for the Tigers. With a new coach at the helm and nine new freshman faces on the roster, this year’s squad resembles a much different group than the bunch that closed out 2013. To end the calendar year on a high note, the hometown side will have to play at its best, with steep competition awaiting it this weekend in Minnesota, and in two weeks time against Quinnipiac.

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