For most hockey players, a year or two of junior hockey after high school is a prerequisite to success on the ice at the college level.
Michael Zajac is proving to be the exception to the rule as he has gone straight from Eagan High in Minnesota to a rousing start in his career with the Princeton University men’s hockey team.
Last Friday, Zajac made his debut at Baker Rink as Princeton hosted No. 4 Cornell and emerged as a star of the game, scoring his first career goal and adding an assist to help the Tigers beat the Big Red 5-3.
A day later, the 6’3, 210-pound forward chipped in a goal as Princeton blanked Colgate 4-0 to improve to 2-2 overall and 2-0 in ECAC Hockey play.
For Zajac, the first home weekend of his college career was one he won’t soon forget.
“It was unbelievable; I am thankful that my parents came all the way from Minnesota to see it,” said Zajac.
“Both of my parents and my little sister got to see my first goal so I couldn’t be more happy for that. After you get your first one, it is a huge weight off of your shoulders. The second one is definitely just as exciting. I am just glad I can help my team get the win.”
In Zajac’s view, the team’s success last weekend was the product of diligence in training.
“We had a great practice week; we worked our butts off. I think it is just a compilation of our hard work we put in, the sweat and tears during the week. It was great getting the sweep.”
For Zajac, making the transition to the college game has involved sweating the details.
“The biggest adjustment is definitely the speed of the game, how quickly the pucks move,” said Zajac.
“Also the physicality, people are a lot bigger and stronger. Passes are a lot crisper and you have to be ready for the puck at all times because you are playing with some great players who can make great plays at any time.”
In making such rapid progress, Zajac has benefited from playing on a line with junior captain Jack Berger and senior assistant captain Rob Kleebaum.
“I couldn’t ask for two better linemates,” said Zajac. “They are both tremendous leaders on our team, both captains. They definitely give me instructive criticism when I need it, which definitely helped tonight. I couldn’t ask for two better leaders to show me the ropes of college hockey.”
Princeton head coach Bob Prier couldn’t ask for more from his freshman star.
He is a big, tough kid,” said Prier. “To have him come in and play like the manchild as he has is encouraging. He does everything really hard; he has a heavy shot. He thinks the game well. He has got a high skill level and great poise with the puck for first-year kid so kudos to him. He has certainly earned those goals; crashing the net and being around the net. He scored goals at the high school level and he has those same habits where he is getting them here. He is big and strong enough that he has made the adjustment rather well.”
It was a strong goal by Kleebaum in the third period of the win over Cornell on Friday that jump-started the Tigers.
“That first win is a tough one to get, no doubt about it,” said Prier, whose team led the Big Red 2-0 after two periods and then fell behind 3-2 before Kleebaum scored to trigger a three-goal avalanche.
“I think the way that we won with Rob Kleebaum scoring just an incredible goal. It was a great goal. It was a goal where he had tremendous will to just make it. It changed the entire attitude and momentum of the game. Once he did that as a senior forward, it got us thinking in the right direction. Here we go, we can do this. Sometimes, that is what you need.”
In Prier’s view, the Tigers sorely needed to put together two big efforts on home ice.
“It gets us moving in the right direction,” said Prier, who got goals from Mike Ambrosia, Tyler Maugeri, and Michael Sdao in the win over Colgate with Andrew Calof chipping in two assists.
“It gets the guys in the right mindset, understanding how they need to play to be successful. Turning into a little bit of a more methodical team is nice to see. The guys had some great individual efforts out there, too.”
Senior goalie Mike Condon gave Princeton a great effort over the weekend, making 22 saves in the win over Cornell and then recording 22 stops against Colgate in earning his second career shutout.
“I think he certainly learned a lot in the first three games he played and he certainly put it to work tonight,” said Prier.
“That wasn’t an easy game for him to play. Colgate is a very offensive team. They are a hot and cold team with a ton of skill so he did a great job against a team that does score a lot of goals.”
Junior forward Calof flashed his skill against Colgate as he set up the goals by Ambrosia and Maugeri.
“I assume that Calof is one of the top producers already in the league and he has to just keep it going because I think that’s what he expects out of himself,” added Prier of Calof who has a team-high seven points on three goals and four assists.
“He plays with such poise; he made two incredible plays on Maugeri’s goal and the Ambrosia goal.”
The Tigers got some poised play from bruising senior defenseman and assistant captain Sdao.
“He had an incredible weekend,” asserted Prier. “This is the best weekend I have seen him have in the year I have been here. It is fun to see him separate guys from pucks and do it in a clean way. He didn’t get a penalty all weekend and he was by far the toughest kid in both games.”
With Princeton playing its next seven games on the road, Prier is looking for his team to hang tough away from the friendly confines of Baker Rink.
“If we want to be the team that we seek to be, we have to do well,” said Prier, whose team plays at St. Lawrence (5-2-1 overall, 0-1-1 ECACH) on November 16 and at Clarkson (1-4-4 overall, 1-0-1 ECACH) on November 17.
“We don’t have a choice. It is nice to have a home ice advantage. We have to develop that same type of the game on the road too and just play the same way.”
Zajac, for his part, believes the Tigers can build on the success they experienced last weekend.
“Road games are tough, you don’t have the satisfaction of playing in front of your own fans,” said Zajac.
“Definitely getting two wins will put some fire in our bellies and show the country what the Tigers are made of.”