ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It was the best chance the men's hockey team had against Michigan.
Hit the faster, more skilled Wolverines. Clog the middle on their rushes. Turn the game into a grind. Frustrate Princeton's Central Collegiate Hockey Association foe with its Eastern College Athletic Conference style of hockey. Then, hope for a break at the end.
If the No. 6-seeded Tigers could do all this and keep the game close, then they would have a shot at knocking off the third-seeded Wolverines.
"The success of the ECAC against the CCHA rests in not giving up the odd-man rush," junior center Jeff Halpern said before the game. "We're definitely going to try to clog up the middle and force the game into a grind."
"They're a really quick skating team out there," head coach Don Cahoon said of Michigan. "They've got size and speed."
The Tigers' goal was to slow the Wolverines down, and for the first two periods, Princeton did.
The Tigers (18-11-7) played heavily favored Michigan (32-11-1) even for two periods Friday, going into the third tied, 1-1. And while the break at the end went the other way – Wolverine center Matt Kosick's shot skipped between senior goaltender Erasmo Saltarelli's pads for a fluke goal just 41 seconds into the third – Princeton's physical play kept the vaunted Michigan offense in check.
The only goal the Tigers allowed in the first two periods came on a Michigan power play.
The strategy had been proven to work against the Wolverines earlier in the season. Colgate – one of the two teams' common opponents – slowed Michigan down enough to snap its 36-game home winning streak in Yost Ice Arena Oct. 17.
Although Cahoon denied the importance of the Colgate strategy early last week, its implementation and viability became evident almost from the opening drop of the puck. Junior left wing Scott Bertoli and Wolverine defenseman Mike Van Ryn began pushing and jawing at each other within the first minute of play.
Key to Princeton's strategy were the allowances made by the referees. Even though they called a tight game, the penalties they assessed left marginally legal and illegal hits underpunished.
Ten minutes into the first period, sophomore right wing Benoit Morin and Michigan left wing Geoff Koch started shoving each other in front of the Wolverine bench. The skirmish soon escalated into a fight. After the referees separated the two, the only penalty incurred was by Morin, a twominute minor for crosschecking.
Indeed, Morin, Bertoli and junior center Syl Apps led the way for the bruising Tigers, as the whole team continually pounded on its quicker opponent.
For most of the game, Princeton managed to keep the puck in the corners and along the boards. When Michigan did break free for offensive rushes, the Tiger forwards skated back on defense ahead of the oncoming Wolverine thrust with only a few exceptions.
All the banging took its toll on Michigan, both physically and mentally. Sloppy puckhandling and errant passes by the Wolverines characterized the majority of the first 40 minutes of play, indicating the physical wear on the normally precise team.
Seven minutes, 14 seconds into the second period, Saltarelli made a glove save on Michigan defenseman Chris Fox's shot from the right point. After the whistle had blown the play dead, Wolverine right wing Bill Muckalt skated across the crease and nailed Saltarelli, knocking the netminder backwards. Muckalt's rough play earned him a two-minute penalty for hitting after the whistle.
It was the best chance Princeton had against Michigan, and it almost worked. But the break at the end bounced past Saltarelli, not Turco. The Tigers proved they could make one of the best teams in the nation play their style of hockey, and showed that their postseason run was no fluke.