Rob Kleebaum and his teammates on the Princeton University men’s hockey team worked hard to earn home ice for the opening round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs.
“I thought our last three games we were doing the things that we needed to do to be successful,” said forward Kleebaum, reflecting on a 1-1-1 stretch which helped Princeton clinch eighth place in the ECACH standings and the right to host No. 9 Cornell last weekend in a best-of-three series.
“I thought we showed that coming into tonight, that definitely gave us momentum.”
For senior Kleebaum, it was special to get some more action in the friendly confines of Hobey Baker Rink.
“I wanted to get back to Hobey; it is nice to play some more games here,” asserted Kleebaum, a 6’0, 210-pound native of Sherwood Park, Alberta.
“The more important thing is that we get home ice, that is a huge advantage, especially against a team like Cornell. You don’t want to go play in their rink.”
Unfortunately, Princeton squandered that advantage as it fell 4-0 on Friday and 4-2 the next night to get eliminated from the playoffs and end the season with a a 10-16-5 overall record.
In Game 1, Princeton looked like it was continuing its spirited play of late, playing Cornell to a scoreless tie midway through the season period.
“I thought we played well,” said Kleebaum, who was all over the ice and generated several scoring chances for the Tigers.
“We were jumping on pucks and reloading hard. We need to be harder around the net though. When we get chances, we have to put them in and bury a team.”
The Big Red finished their chances, scoring two goals in the last 8:51 of the period and then adding two more in the third.
As Kleebaum looked ahead to Game 2, he knew that the Tigers needed to show a sense of urgency in the offensive zone.
“We need to get hungry around the net,” said Kleebaum. “Everything needs to be a life-or-death chance if you are in the slot or anywhere around the net.”
Early in Saturday’s contest, the Tigers showed that hunger, outshooting the Big Red 13-7 in the first period and taking a 1-0 lead on a Will MacDonald goal at the 12:27 mark.
Princeton head coach Bob Prier, for his part, liked the way his team got out of the gate.
“I thought we started pretty well; I thought we started like last night,” said Prier.
“It was good to get that first goal. It was a pretty good start; it looked like it was going to be our game.”
The game started to unravel for the Tigers in the second period as they were outshot 18-6 and got whistled for three penalties as the Big Red knotted the contest at 1-1.
“We took some poor penalties and lost momentum, it is as simple as that,” said Prier, reflecting on the period.
“It is a lesson that I had hoped we had learned throughout the year, obviously we didn’t and it came back to really bite us in the tail here this weekend. When you get less power plays than the opposition two games in a row against the third penalized team in the country, you do that and it is tough sledding.”
After Princeton fell behind 3-1 in the first 5:57 of the third period, the Tigers got a tough break as they had an apparent goal waved off with 10:59 remaining in regulation.
“It was a high stick or a high glove,” said Prier, when asked about the sequence.
“That is what review is for; it is a good call. It would have been nice to have it but at the same time, the technology is used to make sure that we get the right calls and it’s the right call.”
Undeterred, Princeton kept battling as Andrew Calof scored with 45 seconds left in an extra attacker situation. The Tigers made a final push in the waning seconds but Cornell was able to get possession and tally an empty net game to seal the end of the series.
“It is tough to end a team’s season; these kids want to play together, they want to keep it going,” said Prier.
“Cornell did a really good job of playing trap hockey for the whole second half of the game. We had a tough time penetrating that, they did a good job. It was probably boring to watch but hey, a win is a win.”
It will be tough for Prier to say goodbye to Kleebaum and his fellow seniors. “It is a great group of guys, an awesome group of guys,” asserted Prier, whose Class of 2013 includes Eric Meland, Will MacDonald, James Kerr, Michael Sdao, and Mike Condon in addition to Kleebaum.
“I wish them the best of luck. I know that a lot of them are going to play hockey beyond here and some may not. They are all class act kids, good men.”
In Prier’s view, the progress his freshman class made this winter gives the program cause for optimism.
“I think we got a lot better; we had a beat up freshman
class, unfortunately a lot of guys were injured but a lot of them came a long way,” said Prier.
“I thought Michael Zajac had a terrific game today. He really showed up for both games, he really moved his feet really well. If he has a big summer, he could certainly propel himself. It would have been nice to have Kevin Liss all year, that’s for sure. Once he gets healthy, he’ll be really strong. Mike Ambrosia and Kyle Rankin came a long way this year. They have all certainly had a chance to develop. On this team, the young guys get a lot of ice time. I think the future looks bright; it is promising.”