Even though the Princeton Day School boys’ hockey team posted a 6-4 win over Rye Country Day (N.Y.) last Friday in the opening round of its Harry Rulon-Miller ’51 Invitational at Lisa McGraw Rink, the Panthers weren’t pleased with their performance.
“Coach [Scott Bertoli] gave it to us a little after yesterday’s game, saying that we are not playing to our potential at all right now,” said PDS star senior defenseman and assistant captain Andrew Clayton.
“When we play better teams we play up. The opposite is true as well; I think we played down to the other team a little bit yesterday. When you play less competitive teams, you get away from the simple things and you try to do too much which ends up hurting you a lot.”
A day later, the Panthers displayed plenty of competitive fire as they defeated Moses Brown School (R.I.) 4-0 to earn their third straight title at the event, which is in its 44th year.
“It was so much different, we played with energy and passion,” said Clayton, reflecting on the team’s performance which saw it outshoot Moses Brown 43-18 and break the game open with three goals in the second period.
“Yesterday, we were just flat, we played terrible in our defensive zone. Today was much better. When you are playing for a championship, there is extra motivation. We were just better all the way around.”
PDS brought special motivation into the title game as they wanted to please the legendary Rulon-Miller, a former Panther coach and rink manager, who was a constant presence at the tourney all weekend long.
“We always seem to not play too great in the first game and then we come back,” said Clayton.
“We want to win for Harry, he is great for the school and he does everything for us. It means a lot for us to win.”
Clayton wants to perpetuate the program’s storied tradition.
“I have been on this team for a while now; we have been so successful so you want to keep that going,” said Clayton.
“No matter who we have out there, we know we can compete with anyone and win games. When you see kids from last year, they really do still care. They come back and they text us after every game, asking us how we are doing. It’s not just for us, it’s for the alumni who have played in the past.”
Clayton has raised the level of his game. “I think I am just more confident with the puck,” said Clayton, who had two goals in the win over Rye and added an assist in the title game.
“The coaches have faith in me and that always helps. I am better with the tempo and being able to skate with the puck.”
PDS head coach Bertoli liked the tempo he saw from his players in the title game.
“I was pretty critical of the performance yesterday and this was a complete 180, I couldn’t be more proud of the way they played,” said Bertoli, who got two goals apiece from senior Lewie Blackburn and junior Will Wright in the victory over Moses Brown.
“You are always happy with a result that ends up in your favor but I think the way we went about our business, the way we played, the way we competed to play at that level this early is exciting. Hopefully, it bodes well.”
The Panthers played better as a unit against Moses Brown. “I thought that we got a little selfish yesterday,” said Bertoli.
“We tried to do too many things individually and played one-on-one. I thought we made a conscious effort today of just simplifying it and supporting one another and playing hard hockey; winning 50/50 battles.”
Bertoli was proud of the effort he got from unsung heroes Wright and Blackburn.
“Some guys stepped up and scored goals who hadn’t scored goals before,” noted Bertoli.
“Will Wright scored two goals and those are his first two high school goals. He is usually on third line. Today with Kyle Weller not here, he steps in and plays on the top line and they really don’t miss a beat. Lewie has also stepped up, I think those were his first two goals of the year. His line has been great. Connor Fletcher, Johnny Egner, and Lewie play the way they need to play. They grind it out, they get involved in the cycle down low. They are all talented enough to score goals. It was nice to see them get rewarded like that.”
The Panthers got nice defensive play from its defensive unit, led by Clayton and classmate C.J. Young.
“The defense was getting way too involved in the offense and today I think they simplified and supported each other,” said Bertoli.
“Our breakouts and defense-to-defense play, the way we made decisions leaving the zone was completely different from yesterday. It allows our forwards to handle pucks in the middle of the rink and create offensive opportunities. Andrew and C.J. are the two guys that we count on to lead the way, they were good today as were the other four guys.”
Freshman goalie Logan Kramsky handled himself well between the pipes in the title game, making 18 saves to earn the shutout.
“The kid in net makes timely saves when he needs to,” said Bertoli of Kramsky.
“He didn’t get tested a lot but there were points in the game and in every game where you rely on those guys to make critical saves and keep momentum going in your favor. He did that again today. He’s good. He plays a high level of travel hockey. You can tell that he has been well coached. Fundamentally, the kid is flawless. He competes like heck and he wants to be in there.”
Drawing inspiration from Rulon-Miller, the Panthers displayed the brand of hockey that could make them a force in the newly-formed Mid-Atlantic Hockey League (MAHL) which includes Lawrenceville, Hill School (Pa.), Portledge School (N.Y.), LaSalle College High (Pa.), and Wyoming Seminary (Pa.).
“Harry is a fixture around here; he means everything to this hockey program and this school and we were proud to not only win but to play the way we did today,” said Bertoli, whose team improved to 3-0 and hosts Morristown High on December 12 and Bishop Eustace School on December 17.
“It’s not that I don’t care about the result but I am more concerned about the process and how we played at the end of the day. Playing the important games in our league and the tournaments that we have ahead of us, we need to elevate the level of our play to compete against these top schools. I was happy to see, not only that we won and got a piece of hardware, but we played the right way.”
Clayton, for his part, knows that the Panthers will have to compete hard every game in order get more hardware.
“Our schedule is about to ramp up and get a lot tougher,” said Clayton. “We know how we played today and we know how we need to play to be successful. We just need to do that a little more consistently and not every other game or every third game. We need to bring that energy to every game.”