The No. 6 ranked Tigers (24–6–1, 17–4–1 ECAC) knew at the start of the year that this season could be historic. Now, in the final weekend before the NCAA Tournament, they have their chance to fill in new pages of the record books.
Last weekend’s showdown against then-No. 10 Quinnipiac (20–14–3, 11–9–2 ECAC) saw Princeton break the record for most victories in a single season. After winning the series 2—1, they now sit at 24 wins, breaking the mark of 22 wins set by the 2015 squad. The Tigers punched their ticket to the ECAC Semifinals in Ithaca, N.Y., where as the second seed they will “host” the third-seeded Clarkson Golden Knights (25–5–6, 14–4–4 ECAC). Princeton has an all-time record of 0—7 in the ECAC Semifinals and figure to have their best chance to break into the win column this year, despite playing the No. 7 team in the country.
The chance for new records goes beyond this, however. Should they sweep this weekend’s games, they will emerge as the ECAC Tournament Champion for the first time in school history. Additionally, should Princeton make the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year — the first time for that to happen — they will have a chance to win their first Tournament game. Fortunately, last weekend’s hard-fought victory — coupled with other results around the country — gave Princeton a leg up in being granted the right to play hockey next weekend.
If the Tigers learned one thing last weekend, however, it’s to not take anything for granted. Twice in the series against the Bobcats, the Tigers looked like they had all the momentum they needed to close out the contest; both times, Quinnipiac rallied back. In the second game, the Tigers tied the game up late in the third period and began the overtime stanza with an incredible scoring chance, only to watch the Bobcats turn it away and score their own goal moments later.
“After the game, they were devastated,” head coach Cara Morey recalled earlier this week. “When we tied it up late everyone thought we were going to come through and win in overtime. A lot of upset girls in the locker room, but the message was that we had to have a short memory and move on to the next day.”
And move on they did, taking a 2—0 lead late into the third period of a win-or-go-home game 3. Once again however, the Bobcats didn’t quit, rallying behind a power play opportunity and then a fortunate rebound to tie the game just minutes before the horn sounded. Princeton though, was not to be denied again; after a slow opening a few minutes to overtime, the Tigers were relentless in their attack all the way until their golden goal in 2OT. Pressure came from everywhere, as the lines, who to this point had played three extended games, looked as fresh as if they just came out of the tunnel.
“We would have expected the team to become more and more tired,” noted Morey, “but it was great bench management by our coaches. The girls also seemed to be relying on their conditioning. Everyone that was going were really going, and those on the bench had so much energy to support them.”
The Tigers now shift their focus from a series that was surprisingly physical to one that will rely more on mental preparation. The Golden Knights are best known for their trap defense that gives teams fits as they try to advance the puck up ice. Princeton seemed to find a winning formula in the first meeting, putting up 45 shots on goal in their 2—1 victory, but had less success the second time around as they were held to 27 in their 2—1 defeat.
On defense, the Tigers one primary thing on their mind: Elizabeth Giguere. One of the best players in the country, Giguere was the only offense Clarkson needed to defeat Princeton in February, scoring both goals in the win.
“[Defensive coach] Courtney [Kessel] did a great job insulating them with [senior defender] Claire [Thompson] so they felt like they had someone there and didn’t feel nervous” Morey remarked. “It was outstanding to see them keep going out there without worrying. It was a proud moment when we realized they don’t play like freshmen anymore.”
The Tigers arguably had the most difficult Quarterfinal matchup, but Morey was confident that at this stage, the tougher play serves as an advantage. “We got an opportunity that other teams did not: we already battled a Top 10 team and further developed our grit and tenacity. That will help us. The mental toughness gained from that experience will hopefully translate going forward.”
Even more important perhaps, may be the Tigers’ experience in Game 3. With the playoffs shifting to one game matchups, having that experience playing in a do-or-die situation is something neither Clarkson nor No. 1 Cornell has. Of course, the Big Red looms large in the background of this weekend as they host the ECAC Tournament. A win over No. 7 Clarkson and No. 1 Cornell on back-to-back days could potentially set up the Tigers for first round home ice in the NCAA Tournament — another potential new record.
First, however, the focus is on the team in green and gold, the one who eliminated the Tigers from last season’s playoffs and the defending tournament champions. Though the roles are reversed, Princeton knows better than to think too far ahead.
“We know if we don’t win Saturday, that could be it,” said Morey. “We have to take it one game at a time.”