Friday, March 23, 2018

Rhinos And Tigers


The two teams that TigerBlog is more rooting for in the NCAA tournament right now are, in order, Princeton men's hockey and Purdue men's basketball.

They're both in the final 16, and by the end of the weekend, those 16 will be cut to four. Will one or both of them make it?

TB will simply say this: It would be great. Princeton faces off in its game tomorrow at 3:30 against Ohio State in Allentown, Pa., or on ESPNU.

In the meantime, he wants to talk about the New Jersey Rhinos. They're a youth hockey team, a travel A team, who played in a big tournament in Lake Placid. So did the Princeton men's hockey team.

The Rhinos lost their third-place game 2-1 on a goal with 49 seconds to play. As the team went back into the locker room, it walked past a few of the Princeton players. It was, as you can imagine, a sad group.

The head coach, Bob Jaffe, saw them in the hallway, and then, well, these are his words:

It was a very tight contest like the both Princeton games but we lost 2-1 with a goal 47.8 seconds left in regulation.  Of course my boys were devastated and we walked back to the locker room and through the hallways right where the Princeton team happened to be standing.  After giving a very short speech, I ran out of my locker room and approached the group as a moment for my players to hear from someone (maybe anyone) but me at that moment.   After explaining the situation, four players came into the locker room and spoke to my team for a few minutes sharing some of their stories (I know Ryan Kuffner was one) about how losses hurt but they really do make you stronger and should bring you together as a team.  He also shared how he lost on that very ice in his CANAM tourney 11 years ago by the same score.  They then stayed around for a few more minutes sitting in the locker stalls next to a few of the boys who were still heartbroken. It was a moment that the boys, their families and I as their coach will truly remember and cherish.

That's a great story. It's really what the very best part of Princeton Athletics is - the way that the players inspire those around them, especially kids.

You think any of those kids will forget anytime soon the way the Princeton players comforted them? You think they weren't rooting for Princeton after that?

Those are the kinds of stories that you love to hear when you work in college athletics. The Princeton guys didn't need to do what they did. They did so anyway, and it meant so much to a group of upset young players. 

Things like that transcend the games. They are the kinds of things that give you hope. 

It wasn't lost on the coach. Even a few days later, Jaffe said that he couldn't thank the players enough. He also said that his team is going to try to get to Allentown tomorrow for the NCAA game.

Speaking of NCAA games, Purdue men's basketball plays tonight against Texas Tech in Boston, after Villanova plays West Virginia. The winners meet Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.

If the Boilermakers have their 7-2 starting center Isaac Haas and he and his bad elbow are healthy, then the team's chances go way up. On the one hand, they're lucky that they have 7-3 backup Matt Haarms, but they're much better off when he doesn't have to play 29 minutes, like he did against Butler in the second round win.

Purdue's Mackey Arena was an awesome place to watch a game. TigerBlog was there in January, when the Boilermakers played Wisconsin.

It was the 16th of January, to be exact.

At that point, Princeton was in first semester exams. The men's hockey team was 7-10-3 overall and 4-8-1 in the ECAC. In fact, Princeton was in 10th place in the league.

Fast-forwarding a bit, Princeton is the ECAC hockey champion.

Princeton is now 19-12-4, meaning the team is 12-2-1 in its 15 games since then. That's incredible.

Princeton went 6-0 in the ECAC playoffs. As you probably know by now, the Tigers defeated the second seed (Union), top seed (Cornell) and third seed (Clarkson) in the tournament. Cornell and Clarkson earned at-large NCAA bids.

The prize for Princeton is its fourth NCAA tournament appearance. The Tigers are the fourth seed in the Midwest and a No. 4 seed has beaten a No. 1 seed each of the last seven years, TB believes.

Princeton has been in the NCAA tournament in 1998, 2008 and 2009. The Tigers are 0-3 in the those three games, with two that have been decided by one goal. The 2009 game saw Princeton allow two goals in the final minute of regulation and then the OT goal to lose 5-4 to Minnesota Duluth.

Of course, there is no history that has anything to do with the current Tigers. They're a different bunch, and they're dripping with confidence.

They also have everything you need to be successful during runs like they've put together. They have stars - like Kuffner, Max Veronneau and Josh Teves. They have role players and depth, players like Jeremy Germain and Max Becker, who combined for the overtime goal against Clarkson that won the championship last Saturday night. And they have a hot goalie, Ryan Ferland, who was the ECAC tournament MVP.

Maybe the best thing Princeton has going for it is that it can score goals in bunches. If you can't answer, then you're done if the other team gets out 2-0 or so.

Back in 1998, when Princeton made its first NCAA trip, Ohio State was appearing in the Frozen Four for the only time in its program's history. The Buckeyes, one of four Big Ten teams in the field, are making their eighth NCAA trip and are a a No. 1 seed for the first time.

Ohio State is 3-0 all-time against Princeton, the last meeting in 2003. Again, that means nothing.

Neither does the fact that Ohio State leads Division I in killing penalties and Princeton ranks first in power play percentage. Or that Princeton is third in scoring offense and Ohio State is fifth in scoring defense. Heck, Cornell and Clarkson are 1-2 in scoring defense.

No, what matters is believing you can do it. To that end, TigerBlog will paraphrase a not-so-famous quote from a famous coach:

"I can come up with the greatest talk, win one for the Gipper, the greatest speech, and none of it means anything - if the guys you're talking to don't believe they can win the game."

That was Pete Carril after Princeton beat UCLA in the 1996 NCAA basketball tournament. He's right. If you don't think you can win, you won't.

Princeton seems to believe. That's the biggest plus going into this weekend.

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