Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 7
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
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(Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

BURN TREATMENT: Princeton Day School boys’ hockey star Peter Blackburn flies up the ice at McGraw Rink last Thursday in the state Prep championship game against Pingry. Senior forward and co-captain Blackburn contributed two goals as third-seeded PDS upended top-seeded and defending champion Pingry 4-2.

Sparked by Blackburn’s Leadership, Production, PDS Boys’ Hockey Edges Pingry for Prep Crown

Bill Alden

When the Princeton Day School boys’ hockey team suffered a deflating loss to the Academy of New Church in mid-January, PDS senior co-captain Peter Blackburn decided it was time for an attitude adjustment.

“After that game, Skye [co-captain Skye Samse] and me gave the team a 30-minute lecture about it being our last year of hockey and that we were not going down without a fight,” recalled Blackburn.

The Panthers have displayed plenty of fight since that low point, winning eight of nine games culminating with a 4-2 upset of defending champion Pingry last Thursday in the state Prep title game.

While third-seeded PDS had lost 6-4 to top-seeded Pingry in a regular season contest on January 4, the Panthers brought confidence into the rematch that took place at PDS’s McGraw Rink.

“I think we all knew we could play with them,” said Blackburn of Pingry, which routed PDS 11-0 in last season’s Prep semis.

“I think we all saw the test was going to be shutting down No. 13 [Matt Beattie]. I think he got five points against us the first time we played them. He never comes off the ice. Our game plan was to shut him down and capitalize on our opportunities.”

Although the Panthers didn’t capitalize on their opportunities in the first period as they fell behind 1-0, they came through in one dazzling 80-second stretch in the second period. Sophomore Alex Nespor found the back of the net with 9:17 left in the period and then Blackburn tallied with 7:57 remaining.

Blackburn saw that sequence as a key turning point in the contest. “Once you get the lead, the momentum sticks with you throughout the game, whether you are dominating or just playing with them,” said Blackburn.

The Big Blue, though, scored a goal with 1:46 left in the period to knot the game at 2-2 heading into the final 15 minutes of regulation.

“You have got a 15-minute game; it’s like nothing has been played,” said Blackburn, recalling the team’s locker room discussion before the third period.

“You have 15 minutes left and you might be playing five of them so skate 100 percent every time you are out there. Every second counts.”

The Panthers made the most of their final home appearance this season as Nespor scored with 2:31 remaining and Blackburn added an empty net goal with 19.1 seconds left.

Blackburn’s goal touched off a raucous celebration as the PDS student fans roared with joy in the bleachers as the team clinched the program’s first prep title since 2006.

“It was great; they failed to dump it so it was capitalize on the other team’s mistakes,” said Blackburn, reflecting on his empty netter. “I was able to get a tip to myself and break right to the zone.”

In the post-game celebration, Blackburn held the title plaque above his head and skated it right over to the student section.

“I couldn’t picture it any better; it is the best feeling ever,” asserted Blackburn in recalling his final moments on home ice.

The good feeling in the locker room has played a key role in PDS’s championship run.

“It is just the team spirit,” said Blackburn. “It is a young team, the sophomores looking up to seniors and the seniors are looking to sophomores, freshmen, and juniors. We have great chemistry; we have a team song we play when we win and we have the chant before the game. We have had team dinners the last two nights.”

PDS head coach Scott Bertoli was proud of how his team worked together to contain Pingry star Beattie.

“You give him an inch he is going to take the game over,” said Bertoli of Beattie.

“We did it a couple of times and Connor [Walker] made some big saves. We were able to corral him for the most part. We tried to neutralize him in the neutral zone and take space away from him. That kid played 35 minutes of the game, and tired or not, he is the best player on the ice. He’s a heck of a hockey player.”

It has been a heck of a late-season run for PDS which topped No. 6 Pennington 3-1 in the opening round of the Prep tourney and then stifled second-seeded Morristown-Beard 4-0 in the semis.

“What is satisfying is beating two very good teams, two perennial top 10 programs,” said Bertoli, referring to the wins over Mo-Beard and Pingry.

“The kids will appreciate the fact that it is the Prep championship. All I talk about is quality wins and beating good teams. In the last three weeks we have done that. We have won eight games in a row; we beat some quality programs. For me, it is enjoyable to sit back and watch good hockey.”

Bertoli has certainly enjoyed watching the play of his sizzling sophomore goalie Connor Walker, who made 33 saves in the title game.

“Connor has won every single game he has started this year; he has started 11 or 12 games this year and he has won 11 or 12 games,” said Bertoli, whose team was outshot 35-16 by Pingry.

“He was great; he made some big stops in the first period. I told the kids when we came in here for that little break that you know what, this wasn’t the effort we were looking for in the first period. You got outworked; you got outplayed but you have got a goalie who kept you in the game. The kids have all the confidence in the world in him. He has good rebound control. He is just a confident kid right now and we are a confident team in front of him.”

The offensive flair of Nespor and Blackburn also sparks confidence for the Panthers.

“They are goal scorers; they create chances,” said Bertoli, referring to his two star forwards.

“They are good enough where they can create their own opportunities on 1-on-1s and 2-on-1s. They just find ways to get pucks on their sticks.”

Bertoli is also proud of how Blackburn and Samse seized the opportunity to lead the team. “We have good leadership; Peter and Skye do a very good job,” said Bertoli.

“I have given ownership of the team to those two guys; I spend very little time in that locker room. I go in before the game and I say my piece. We had a stretch there with the ANC game and the first period against LaSalle where our kids weren’t ready. I told Peter and Skye, they need to hear it from you guys as captains, that this is important to you and that being prepared is something we really need to put in place.”

Now the Panthers are prepared to go after a second straight title at the Mercer County Tournament. The Panthers, now 15-8-1, are seeded first and will face No. 8 Hamilton in the quarterfinals at Mercer County Park on February 16. The semis are slated for February 18 with the title game to take place on February 21.

“We decided to enter the counties because we moved our tournament up in the year,” said Bertoli.

“I think the guys that run that tournament do an incredible job; the atmosphere over there for the semis and finals is electric, similar to today. I told these kids that you have got to embrace this because a lot of you guys aren’t going to play in an environment like this after high school. You are playing a game that you will remember the rest of your lives. To me, it is all about opportunities. We are a confident group and we’ll gear up and be ready to go in the county tournament.”

Blackburn, for his part, believes the Panthers are ready to make some more championship memories.

“I think it is going to be another challenge,” said Blackburn. “We played Notre Dame to a 4-2 game and Princeton High to a 5-1 game. It is like this game against Pingry, if they capitalize on more of their opportunities, we are out.”

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