With snow melting and temperatures rising, another remnant of winter faded away last weekend when the men of Princeton hockey played their final games of the 2014-15 campaign.
Twelfth-seeded Princeton (4-23-3 overall, 2-18-2 Eastern College Athletic Conference) travelled to Hanover, N.H. to take on fifth-seeded Dartmouth (17-10-4, 12-8-2) in the opening round of ECAC postseason play. The best-of-three series began on Friday night in front of 1,603 spectators at Dartmouth’s Thompson Arena.
The underdog Tigers sent a message in the first period, refusing to be intimidated by the talented home side. Freshman defenseman Matt Nelson scored his first career goal just six minutes into the first period, with sophomore Ryan Siiro assisting on the tally. Princeton carried the 1-0 advantage into the second stanza, backed by a strong performance from sophomore goaltender Colton Phinney.
In the second, the Big Green struck back. When the referee’s hand went up to signify a delayed penalty on freshman Eric Robinson for slashing, Dartmouth goalie James Kruger sprinted to the bench to allow for an extra skater. Dartmouth capitalized on the 6-on-5 opportunity, with forward Tyler Sikura notching the game-tying goal at 11:14 of the period. Unlike in the NHL, delayed penalties in college hockey are not wiped away by extra attacker goals. It was during the ensuing power play, just 46 seconds after the first score, that Robinson netted his team another goal, giving Darmouth a 2-1 lead 12 minutes into the period.
Despite the momentum-shifting goals, the Tigers refused to let the game escape them. Sophomore Garrett Skrbich, assisted by Robinson and junior Kevin Liss, netted his second goal of the season at 8:53 of the final period to set up a thrilling finish. However, the underdog story was squelched late in regulation, as Dartmouth forward Eric Neiley scored the decisive goal with 1:27 left in Game 1 to send Dartmouth to a 3-2 victory and a 1-0 advantage in the series. Phinney finished the night with 23 stops to Kruger’s 22.
The intensity and competitiveness of Game 1 carried over to the following night, as the Big Green and the Tigers battled once again through a tight 60 minutes of hockey that could have seen either side emerge victorious.
Despite a combined 18 shots (10 by Dartmouth, eight by Princeton) and a power play opportunity for the visitors, the first period ended scoreless. The Tigers found themselves on the defensive in the following period. After fighting off a penalty early in the frame, the Tigers conceded a goal at 16:59 to forward Brad Schierhorn, the only one of Dartmouth’s 15 shots in the period to beat Phinney and find the back of the net. On the other end, Princeton’s five shots were not enough to sustain pressure on Kruger and the staunch Big Green defense.
The Orange and Black knew that the final 20 minutes of the game would be the last of the season without an equalizer, but despite the team’s best efforts, it could not score the elusive game-tying goal. After a late power play opportunity proved fruitless, the Tigers pulled Phinney for the last 1:02 of play in search of some late heroics. Following heart-pounding, desperate Princeton attacks on Kruger on one end of the ice, however, Robinson found the puck on his stick at the other and sounded the death-knell for Princeton’s season as he sent the puck through the vacated visitor net with five seconds remaining. Dartmouth had won the game and the series by 2-0 margins, with the Tigers unable to pull off the upset.
Dartmouth will travel to Hamilton, N.Y., next weekend to square off against fourth-seeded No. 16 Colgate (19-11-4, 11-7-4 ECAC) in a quarterfinal best-of-three series. Saturday marked both the last game of the season for the Tigers and the last time seniors Tom Kroshus, Tucker Brockett, Aaron Kesselman, Tyler Maugeri, Aaron Ave and Ryan Benitez suited up for the Orange and Black.
Junior forward Jonathan Liau led the team in points this season, with 14. He and sophomore forward Ben Foster were the leading goal scorers, with four apiece. Phinney impressed in net all year, finishing with a .910 save percentage over 29 games.
When first-year head coach Ron Fogarty took the Princeton job last summer, he knew he would have his work cut out for him if he wanted to return the program to its former glory. While the man who entered the season with college hockey’s best career-winning percentage could not duplicate the immediate success he enjoyed at Adrian College — his last gig — there have certainly been signs of improvement on display for Princeton men’s hockey this season. With nine freshmen and eight sophomores on the squad this year, the Tigers still managed to compete with more experienced ECAC foes all season, and pushed Dartmouth to the brink twice in two games last weekend demonstrating the promise of the team. When frost and frigid winds return to Princeton next winter, the Tigers should have a solid foundation on which to work.