Men's hockey head coach Don Cahoon lives by and preaches only one mantra: the regular season does not matter as long as the team is peaking for the playoffs. The contrast between this season and last illustrates exactly why he believes in it.
Last year, Princeton was predicted to finish second in the Eastern College Athletic Conference. The Tigers flirted with a first-place finish and rose to as high as No. 6 in the national polls.
But in spite of their success, the Tigers found themselves in fourth place with four games to go.
This year, an 11th-place prediction greeted Princeton at the beginning of the season. And the Tigers fell as low as 10th, one spot out of the cellar. After a midseason surge, however, this year's squad finds itself in the exact same position.
Night and day
"A new season creates a whole different set of circumstances," Cahoon said. "These are two totally different situations."
Different indeed. Last year's team suffered through the absence of defenseman Steve Shirreffs '99 because of a knee injury and fell from first to fourth place in a matter of weeks before eking out the fourth-place finish at the end of the season.
This time around, Princeton (9-12-3 overall, 7-7-3 ECAC) has jumped six spots in three games to reach its current position, tied with Cornell and Dartmouth. According to Cahoon's philosophy, the upswinging Tigers might even be better off than last year.
Better off, that is, if Princeton can continue its successes through the final two weekends of the season. If they can do that, the Tigers will be primed for the postseason just as Cahoon hoped.
Before the playoffs, Princeton must first get past a falling Harvard team and the surprising Brown Bears.
The Crimson (8-14-2, 6-9-2) come into Baker Rink tonight riding a wave of disappointment, having gone 0-6-1 in its last seven games. Over that stretch, Harvard has dropped from its spot near the top of the league standings down to ninth place. The Crimson is now in danger of missing the playoffs.
"[Harvard] is a very capable team athletically," Cahoon said. "We can't forget what it felt like when we were 0 for 5 [earlier in the season]."
A resurgent Brown team comes to town tomorrow, ready to fight for a spot in the playoffs. The Bears shocked first-place St. Lawrence last weekend with a 6-0 shutout. They also beat the Tigers in the teams' first meeting this season, so it is possible they will steal another one.
A higher degree of parity pervades the ECAC this season than in previous years. Princeton can still finish as high as third — but also as low as 10th.
Princeton is guaranteed a playoff spot, but needs to win in order to ensure a favorable seed and home ice for the first round of the playoffs.