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Tigers' physical play key to upset chances

A way games in stadiums teeming with screaming, hostile fans. Most coaches expect to prepare their teams for such an unfriendly environment at least a few times during the regular season. But when playoff time rolls around, neutral sites tend to be filled with a large contingent of unbiased fans interspersed with bastions of each team's partisans.

Try telling that to head coach Don Cahoon and the men's hockey team.

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The NCAA selection committee "rewarded" Princeton (18-10-7) for its dramatic run through the Eastern College Athletic Conference postseason tournament with a first round matchup in the NCAA tournament against the No. 4 team in the nation, Michigan (30-11-1), on its home ice, Yost Arena, in Ann Arbor, Mich., tonight.

Unlike the men's basketball tournament, the NCAA allows teams to play in their own stadiums in the men's hockey tourney. There are two regional sites for the 12-team tournament – Albany, N.Y., in the East Region and Ann Arbor in the West.

Prairie View

The Tigers' relatively mediocre record relegated them to a No. 6 seed in the West region. A placement in the East Regional would have set up an immediate rematch against East No. 3 seed Clarkson (23-8-3), whom Princeton defeated Saturday in the final of the ECAC tournament, 5-4, in double overtime.

Michigan – which has been around the top of the polls all season – had a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and the accompanying first-round bye in its grasp before losing to upstart Ohio State in the semifinals of the Central College Hockey Association tournament. The selection committee could not justify giving Michigan a bye because of the loss. Instead, the NCAA gave the Wolverines a No. 3 seed.

The result – a 'neutral' site game in Yost Arena that will feature 7,235 partisan maize-and-blue-clad fans.

For their part, however, the Princeton players are not intimidated about playing the 1996 national champions on their home ice.

Certifiable

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"We couldn't find a better (team and) place to play than Michigan at Michigan," said junior defenseman Jackson Hegland, grinning. "The crowd's going to be insane."

"They are a pretty hostile crowd," said senior center Matt Brush, Princeton's only Michigan native. "That's an environment that's just so fun to play in."

The Tigers do have some experience from which to draw, however, in preparing for the noise of Yost. The ECAC final was held in Lake Placid, N.Y., which is almost in Clarkson's backyard. A sea of gold and green Golden Knight faithful filled the stands, making it nearly impossible to hear after a Clarkson goal.

Should Princeton upset the heavily favored Wolverines, it would advance to face second-seeded North Dakota (30-7-1), the reigning national champion, tomorrow at 9 p.m.

Journey to the unknown

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The matchup with Michigan presents a number of problems for Cahoon and his staff. Foremost among them is the fundamental issue of familiarity. The last meeting between the two schools occurred in 1980, a 4-1 Wolverine victory in Ann Arbor.

By the time the Tigers left for Ann Arbor Wednesday, Cahoon had just obtained video tapes of the CCHA foe. As a result, he has scrambled to devise and implement a game plan in a short amount of time. Michigan head coach Red Berenson, however, faces the same situation – he knows little about the Tigers.

When Cahoon does look at the tapes, he will not like what he sees. Despite the loss of nine seniors who were the core of the team that won the NCAA title just two years ago, Michigan boasts a solid roster, including a Hobey Baker award finalist and an NCAA record holder. Almost half the players participated in the championship run of 1996. Perhaps the biggest, and most important, name on the Wolverines' roster is netminder Marty Turco. Goaltending is always the key in any hockey playoff situation, and Turco is one of the best in collegiate hockey. The senior has a definite claim on being one of the best of all time, as he holds the NCAA record for victories with 123.

Scrooge

This season, Turco added 29 of those wins on the way to a 29-10-1 record. He allowed a stingy 2.24 goals per game, which tied him for fifth in the nation.

Turco does, however, possess a weakness that Princeton may be able to exploit.

"(Turco) is really aggressive and comes out of the net a lot," Brush said, "so we have to be prepared to keep the puck away from him."

This is the exact same style of play that the Tigers' senior netminder Erasmo Saltarelli employs. Indeed, the Tigers have a drill in practice designed to attempt to lure him out of the net. If Princeton can use this experience to entice Turco out of the crease, it may be able to get some easy shots on an empty net.

In front of Turco, the Michigan defensive corps is shorthanded after finding out that Sean Peach will most likely miss the playoffs due to a concussion he suffered two weeks ago. Only senior Chris Fox and junior Bubba Berenzweig have significant NCAA tournament experience among the remaining blue liners, but freshmen Mike VanRyn and Scott Crawford have performed well in significant playing time this season.

Muscle

If the Tigers' physical forwards, junior Syl Apps and sophomore Benoit Morin, can pound the Wolverine defensemen along the boards, Princeton stands a good chance at getting enough shots to challenge Turco.

No such weakness, however, exists in Michigan's offense. Right wing Bill Muckalt tallied 64 points (31 goals, 33 assists) this season, which ranks third in the nation, while his 11 power-play goals ties him for fifth. Numbers like these have earned him the status of finalist for the Hobey Baker award, given annually to the best player in collegiate men's hockey.

But if Princeton focuses on defending only Muckalt, tonight could be a long night for the Tigers. The balanced Wolverine offense includes six other players with 20 points, led by centers Bobby Hayes (42) and Matt Kosick (40).

Logjam

To win tonight's contest, the Tigers must play a physical game, clog the middle to stop Hayes and Kosick and not make many mistakes, particularly inside of their own blue line. There is little doubt that this strategy works, since Colgate – the two teams' only common opponent this season – employed it to shock the Wolverines, 2-1, at Yost Oct. 17.

"The success of the ECAC against the CCHA rests in not giving up the odd-man rush," junior center Jeff Halpern said. "We're definitely going to try to clog up the middle and force the game into a grind."

As it happens, this is exactly Princeton's style of play. To make it work, nonetheless, Halpern, senior right wing Casson Masters and junior left wing Scott Bertoli must put the puck in the net and points on the board, thereby allowing the Tiger blue liners to concentrate on stopping the Michigan rush. Saltarelli must be solid in net, particularly against the Wolverine power play.

If Princeton can keep it close late in the game, the Tigers might silence all 7,235 Michigan fans. Just ask Clarkson.

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