For the last few weeks men's hockey has played like a team that cannot decide whether or not it wants to make the playoffs. Its record of late is littered with blown leads and big wins. Take, for instance, the last few weekends: A loss and a tie, a loss and a win, a loss and a win.
This weekend, Princeton finally decided in favor of making playoff plans. With a 5-3 win over Dartmouth and a 4-4 tie against Vermont at Baker Rink this weekend, the Tigers took three points and a large step towards a three-game playoff series March 13-15.
Entering the weekend tied for eighth place in the Eastern College Athletic Conference with Dart-mouth (11-11-5 overall, 7-10-3 ECAC), the Tigers (13-8-6, 7-8-5) vaulted into a sixth-place tie with Cornell and still have a chance of gaining home ice advantage in the ECAC playoffs.
After losing a three-goal lead by the midway point of the third period Friday against Vermont (10-17-3,-10-3), the Tigers rallied to tie the Catamounts on a late goal by junior defenseman Steve Shirreffs.
With nine minutes, 21 seconds left to play, junior left wing Scott Bertoli crossed the puck to Shirreffs, who was breaking down the right wing. Shirreffs slid across the ice and deflected the puck past Allen to his glove side, tallying his second score of the evening.
Perhaps more important than his three weekend goals – he added another Saturday – was his ice time. On a team riddled by injuries, especially in the defensive core, Shirreffs, Princeton's best defenseman, has seen vastly increased playing time.
M * A * S * H
Already having lost junior defenseman Michael Acosta for the rest of the season, the Tigers' bench thinned out Friday as sophomore defenseman Chris Barber and freshman defenseman Peter Zavodny both went down in the first period.
"I guarantee that next year we'll be deeper on the defensive position," head coach Don Cahoon said.
While Zavodny will most likely be out for the remainder of the season, Barber managed to return for Saturday's action. Despite this addition, Cahoon was still left with a difficult decision: go with a gimpy, five-man defensive rotation or move some forwards back to the blue line.
On Senior Night Saturday, Cahoon chose the latter. He gambled, forsaking some offense and gaining only inexperienced defensive bodies. Princeton rotated junior center Jeff Halpern and sophomore left wing Brad Meredith along the blue line.
It paid off. Senior goaltender Erasmo Saltarelli played brilliantly in his final regular-season game at Baker Rink. Shirreffs, Barber and junior defenseman Jackson Hegland all played impressively. Meredith fared respectably at both forward and defense, as did Halpern in very limited action as a defenseman.
"We definitely need (Halpern) up front (rather than at defenseman)," Shirreffs said.
The offense also did its part, netting five goals, three in the second stanza. Bertoli led the scoring with three points (one goal, two assists), all of which came in the decisive second period.
In the face of all the injuries, the return of senior right wing Casson Masters bolstered the Tigers' offensive presence. The fifth-leading scorer on the team added two assists on the weekend and restored the offensive continuity that Princeton lacked during his absence. While he saw action with a number of different forward combinations, he also took a few shifts with his old linemates – Halpern and Bertoli.
Friday, the Tigers built a solid two-goal lead after Vermont's Stephane Piche flicked the rebound from teammate Jerry Gernander's wraparound shot before Saltarelli could recover. Junior center Syl Apps, Shirreffs and senior right wing Robbie Sinclair all scored in the run, before the Catamounts stormed back with their own three goal explosion to take the lead.