After Making Impressive Turnaround Last Winter, PU Men’s Hockey Aiming for a Special Campaign
ON COURSE: Princeton University men’s hockey player Eric Robinson glides up the ice in action last winter. Senior forward and co-captain Robinson will be taking a leading role as the Tigers look to keep building after going 15-16-3 last season and advancing to the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals. Princeton opens its 2017-18 season when it hosts Holy Cross on October 29. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
When the Princeton University men’s hockey team started the 2016-17 campaign by going 0-6-1, it looked like the Tigers were headed for another rough winter.
After all, Princeton had won a total of just nine games (9-46-6) over the previous two seasons.
Instead, the Tigers caught fire, going 13-7-2 over the rest of the regular season with wins over seven top-20 teams to write one of the best turnaround stories in college hockey.
That surge earned the Tigers home ice for the opening round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs against Colgate, and they made the Baker Rink fans proud. After losing the opener to the Raiders, Princeton scored a last second goal to force overtime in the second game and ended up winning 4-3. Princeton then won the clincher 2-1.
While Princeton got swept 2-0 by No. 6 Union in the ECACH quarters to finish 15-16-3, things were definitely headed in the right direction with most of its top stars coming back.
As the Tigers have hit the ice to prepare for their 2017-18 campaign, which starts when they host Holy Cross on October 29, Princeton head coach Ron Fogarty is seeing carryover from that taste of success.
“It is going well, it has been a continuum of last season,” said Fogarty, who is in his fourth season guiding the Tigers.
“The style of play is intact now. The guys had a really good summer of preparation and it is indicative of the play early on in practice here. The guys are looking stronger; they are moving very well around the ice.”
Princeton features a strong one-two punch at forward in juniors Ryan Kuffner (19 goals and 17 assists in 2016-17) and Max Veronneau (11 goals, 24 assists).
“Both are looking good, they are very good players,” said Fogarty of the pair, who both hail from Ottawa, Ontario and played juniors together before coming to Princeton.
“They complement each other when they are on the ice; they make each other better.”
The Tigers have firepower to complement Kuffner and Veronneau with the return of sophomore Jackson Cressey (7 goals, 26 assists) senior co-captain Eric Robinson (13 goals, 8 assists), senior David Hallisey (13 goals, 17 assists), junior Alex Riche (7 goals, 10 assists), and sophomore Liam Grande (3 goals, 2 assists).
“The good thing is we don’t have to rely on just those two with Cressey, Robinson, Hallisey, and even guys like Grande,” said Fogarty.
“He had a great summer, he looks stronger coming back from an injury that prevented him from playing in the majority of the second half.”
Freshman forwards Neil Doef, Colin Tonge, Jake Paganelli, and Luke Keenan figure to add more depth to the attack.
“They are learning the systems,” said Fogarty. “They are going to be great complement players to our lineup.”
Junior Josh Teves (4 goals, 21 assists) and sophomore Derek Topatigh (2 goals, 7 assists) give Princeton a great pair to lead the defensive unit.
“Josh and Derek are looking good,” said Fogarty. “Josh is a great leader as an underclassman and provides so much of an offensive spark. Derek had a great freshman year and we expect a lot from him on the offensive side of the game and helping the forwards.”
Fogarty is expecting a big contribution from a pair of veterans, co-captain Joe Grabowski (2 goals, 5 assists) and Matt Nelson (2 goals, 4 assists).
“We are looking for a great senior campaign from one of captains, Joe Grabowski, and Matt Nelson,” said Fogarty.
“You still lean on the seniors for the leadership and the knowledge and experience of the game. Now they have had the experience and a small taste of winning.”
Freshmen Mark Paolini, Reid Yochim, and Matthew Thorn will get a taste of action along the blue line.
“All three are going to be playing,” said Fogarty. “They are looking fit. The transition from junior to the collegiate level is tougher on defense with the style that we play but they are grasping the concepts and our philosophy.”
The biggest question mark surrounding the Tigers is replacing graduated star Colton Phinney at goalie, who played in 33 games last year and ended his career as the program’s all-time saves leader. Senior Ben Halford (1.63 goals against and .957 save percentage in three games last season), junior Austin Shaw, and freshman Ryan Ferland are vying for that spot.
“Ben has the most experience although it is minimal,” said Fogarty.
“Both returning goalies improved. Shaw hasn’t been tested in a game scenario, so he played the majority of the University of the Western Ontario scrimmage (a 6-4 win on October 14). He looked pretty good. Ryan Ferland is having a great preseason here. I thought he played well in his portion of the Western Ontario game.”
At this point, Fogarty is still considering his options. “It is wide open; it is definitely not going to be one guy leading the way as we have had with Colton but that is a great thing too,” said Fogarty.
“It will force their standard of play to keep elevating and keep challenging each other in practice. If someone gets hot we are going to run with him. I am not hesitant to put any one of the three in there.”
The rise in Princeton’s all-around standard of play should make it even tougher to beat this winter.
“Going into our fourth year as a staff, the team is starting to come together as a whole,” said Fogarty.
“I believe the team can be very hard to play against and we can win in different ways. It is a team that can grind it out down low or we can open it up and have a track meet game.”
Fogarty is looking forward to utilizing that flexibility in the opener against Holy Cross.
“It is just getting better at what we are doing, once we see what Holy Cross is doing after the first period, hopefully we will be right there in the game and we can make adjustments to counter,” said Fogarty.
“When we do counter, it is the things that we do well. We are not going to chase the game, we are going to keep attacking the game and doing what we believe will make us successful.”
In Fogarty’s view, Princeton is primed to enjoy a lot of success this winter.
“I think we have the chance to do something special this year, but we just have to make sure that we worry about today and just getting better,” said Fogarty.
“We gave up a lot of shots again last year; we just have to get better in our defensive zone. I know we can score goals but we have to make sure that we continue to keep the puck out of the net by playing solid defense. Our guys know how to win now.”