The men's hockey team's season this year has been a story of adversity and, finally, astonishing success. No single player exemplifies this experience better than junior center Jeff Halpern.
Despite disruptions in lines caused by numerous injuries to his teammates and several disappointing losses, Halpern has had a stellar year. With his second goal last weekend in the Eastern College Athletic Conference championship game against Clarkson, Halpern tied a 40-year old Princeton goalscoring record with 27 goals on the season.
Besides the team record, Halpern leads the ECAC in overall points, goals and shorthanded points. Considering his dominant play this season, goal scoring is a surprisingly new skill for Halpern.
"I've never been a huge goal scorer," Halpern says. "I'm more of an assist guy. My scoring has been more of an effect of playing time and help from the whole line."
Halpern centers the Tigers top line with junior left wing Scott Bertoli and right wing Casson Masters. The trio has been Princeton's most reliable and prolific line, but increasingly it is Halpern who the team counts on for scoring in tough situations.
"Jeff's been our goto guy all year," head coach Don Cahoon said. "We count on him and his line to get it done."
Halpern, however, views his most important role as just being a member of the line.
"(The line) is out there to get things going so other lines can feed off of us," he says. "Sometimes we need a big goal or a catch up score. We put an effort in and everyone else works off of that.
Halpern attributes most of his success to consistently playing with the same people. Except for the absence of Masters for part of this year due to injury, the line has been together since the last 10 games of the 1995-1996 season.
"I always played with the same kids growing up," Halpern says. "Part of the success we've had now is that we've got four lines that have been together for a while."
Halpern started his hockey career after "failing out" of figure skating lessons at age three. Because he hails from Maryland, a weak hockey area, playing at a highly competitive level was a continual challenge for Halpern, resulting in his decision to attend St. Paul's in Concord, N.H. for high school.
After graduation Halpern chose to take a year off from school to play hockey in Canada's junior leagues. After a season with the Stratford Cullitons, which included winning the regular season Junior B league title, Halpern decided to attend Princeton. However, Halpern found his first season extremely disappointing.
"Freshman year was a nightmare," he says. "We had a good team that lost a lot of close games – we just didn't know how to win. Hockey's a big part of my life and when you're losing you can't have fun in anything else. I started to second-guess my choice."
Sophomore year, things started to come together for Halpern, but it was not until this year that he has finally come into his own.
With a league-leading four shorthanded goals, Halpern has mastered opposing teams' breakout and caught many teams off guard. Also it was Halpern who got the call for the critical penalty shot versus Clarkson. His move against Golden Knight goalie Chris Bernard looked like it belonged in an Olympic shootout, but that wasn't the first time Halpern had pulled off the shot.
"Freshman year we were in a tournament in Ottawa in an overtime shootout against Merrimack," Halpern says. "It came down to me on the last shot and that's the move I used. It was something I saw Chris Chelios do once. When I came back to the bench (in the Clarkson game), the guys were all laughing. They know that's the only move I've got."
Halpern has shown a few more moves this season, especially on the power play unit – one of few consistent elements for the Tigers' attack.
"We've all started to be able to read other teams and really work together," Halpern says. "If (the team) is going to have any success, the power play has to get a couple of goals a game."
Halpern was especially referring to Princeton's matchup against Michigan goalie Marty Turco Friday night and he knows that the team is counting on the power play to win.
A formidable task, but who would have thought the Tigers and Halpern could have accomplished as much as they already have this season?