Monday, March 19, 2018

Never Look Back

Only Ron Fogarty and the members of his Princeton men's hockey program knew exactly what was being said between the end of the third period and the start of the overtime.

In the collective Princeton locker room, yes. And in their individual minds.

There were the Tigers Saturday night in the ECAC championship game against Clarkson, automatic NCAA bid on the line, up by a goal, the minutes of the third period going by, one by one.

With a little more than two minutes to go, Princeton was whistled for a penalty. Clarkson pulled the goalie, playing 6x4, and Princeton killed that off.

Suddenly there were just 12 seconds to play. The Clarkson net was still empty. Face-off in the Princeton end. Just clear it out once, and that would be that.

Only it wasn't that. Clarkson controlled the puck, and then shockingly it was in the Princeton net. And only 6.4 seconds remained.

There's no way to know what they were all thinking in the break that ensued. Human nature would have been something along the lines of "we were so close, and now they have all the momentum and now they're going to win and we're going to have an awful bus ride home" or something like that.

Or maybe it was simply this: "Never look back." Actually it would be a good mantra for the 2017-18 Princeton men's hockey team.

If the Tigers did look back, they would see a team that just three years ago set the program record for fewest goals in a season, with 39. Or just two years ago finished 12th in the 12 team ECAC. Both of those teams lost 23 games.

If they wanted to look back, they would know that they'd only won this championship twice, exactly 10 and 20 years ago. They didn't have to go back that far. They could have gone back only to last year, when Princeton started out 0-6-1 and became the last Division I team to win a game.

So why look back at any of it? How about looking straight ahead, right into the overtime. There was a championship out there waiting for this group, which had come so far so quickly, led by a coach whose persona suggests toughness and confidence, without a shred of phoniness mixed in.

Now, instead of struggling to score goals, this was the highest-scoring team in program history. Think about that. They'd gone from 39 goals for the season three years ago to the program record for most goals in a season, with 128.

And then, just 157 seconds later, that would get pushed to 129 goals. Princeton 2, Clarkson 1. And the celebration would begin.

For fans of numerical coincidence, Princeton had won its previous ECAC championships in 1998 and 2008. This was the next time year ended in that number, and as he watched the overtime start, TigerBlog thought to himself that it would be really fitting for the Princeton player who wore the number 8 to score the game-winner.

That would be Max Becker. And that's exactly who scored it.

Whatever the players and coaches said and thought, they came out focused and aggressive. Princeton outshot Clarkson 7-1 in the overtime before the game-winner, which featured an extraordinary pass from below the goal line from Jeremy Germain and the composure from Becker not to rush it.

The win over Clarkson completed one of the most extraordinary playoff runs TigerBlog can ever remember for a Princeton team. Keep in mind, Princeton's current seniors won four games as a freshmen on that team that scored 39 goals. In the recently completed ECAC tournament alone, Princeton won six games and scored 29 goals.

Fogarty has turned Princeton into one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, and one of the most exciting. For all of the goals, though, the MVP of the ECAC tournament was freshman goalie Ryan Ferland, who allowed two goals, one each to Cornell and Clarkson, while making 58 saves.

To win the championship, Princeton swept Brown at home by a combined 15-3 and then swept Union on the road in the quarterfinals, beating a team twice in two nights that it had not beaten in 20 attempts prior to that.

Then it was off to Lake Placid, where Princeton beat Cornell 4-1 Friday after giving up the first goal and then Clarkson in the OT. If you don't remember the final ECAC standings, Princeton beat the second seed (Union), top seed (Cornell) and third seed (Clarkson).

The reward for Princeton is an NCAA tournament appearance. The Tigers will be the fourth seed in the Midwest Region, taking on top-seeded Ohio State Saturday at 3:30 in Allentown, Pa., and on ESPNU.

As TB watched the NCAA selections yesterday, he learned that a four seed has beaten a one seed each of the last seven years. He also heard more than once that Princeton is the hottest team in the country.

For the Tigers, these are the best of times. Fogarty has built his program quickly, with players who have bought in and who are among the best in the country. Their tournament championship was no fluke, and their spot in the NCAA tournament is legit.

That's what Princeton men's hockey can look forward to now, playing in the tournament for the first time since 2009 and fourth time ever.

The Tigers got there the hard way, giving up a crushing goal within seconds of the finish line and then regrouping really quickly to win it anyway.

Yeah, it's been an extraordinary run. With more to come.

1 comment:

Mike Knorr said...

And to add a couple more crazy eights to the equation, Becker is a senior which makes him class of '18 and the Tigers opened the play-offs by scoring 8 goals in the first game.