March 28, 2018

PU Men’s Hockey Falls to Ohio State in NCAAs, But Postseason Run Leaving Indelible Memories

PARTING SHOT: Princeton University men’s hockey player Matt Nelson heads up the ice in a game this season. Last Saturday, senior defenseman Nelson scored a goal in a losing cause as fourth-seeded Princeton fell 4-2 to top-seeded Ohio State in the NCAA Midwest regional semifinals. The loss left the Tigers with a final record of 19-13-4. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

When Matt Nelson and David Hallisey joined the Princeton University men’s hockey team four years ago, things were pretty bleak.

The Tigers posted a 4-23-3 record in their freshman campaign in 2014-15 and then went 5-23-3 the next winter.

“When we came in, the culture of the team was a losing culture,” said senior defenseman Nelson. “Guys expected to lose every night.”

But last winter, the Tigers turned the corner, going 15-16-3 and advancing to the second round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs. Building on that progress, the Tigers caught fire down the stretch this winter, winning the ECACH tournament and bringing an eight-game unbeaten streak into its NCAA Midwest regional semifinal matchup against Ohio State last Saturday at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pa.

“I think over the past four years it’s kind of changed,” said Nelson, a 6’0, 200-pound native of Edina, Minn. “Things started to click last year. You can kind of see it all come together this year, at the end of the year, our playoff run.

Senior forward David Hallisey has appreciated Princeton’s journey up the ECACH ladder.

“The whole college experience over four years is a learning experience and you kind of go through ups and downs,” said Hallisey, a 5’10, 180-pound native of Wethersfield, Conn. “It’s not like a single moment where everything figures itself out. It’s a learning process.”

While the fourth-seeded Tigers took their lumps in falling behind top-seeded Ohio State 4-0, Nelson and Hallisey ended with special moments as each scored a goal in the last minute of the contest to make it a 4-2 final.

While Hallisey had hoped for a different outcome, scoring with 10 seconds left to get the final tally of the campaign was a nice culmination to a superb career that saw him score 81 points on 37 goals and 44 assists.

“If there is a way to go out well, that’s probably a way to go out,” said Hallisey, managing a smile, reflecting on the goal which was assisted by Nelson and fellow senior Max Becker. “Scoring as a senior class on the ice there twice in 45 seconds is a lot of fun.”

Nelson, who had just five career goals coming into Saturday, won’t soon forget his parting shot which got Princeton on the board with 26 seconds remaining in regulation.

“It was good to have all the seniors out on the ice,” said Nelson, whose tally was assisted on by Hallisey and another classmate, defenseman and team captain Joe Grabowski.

“The coaches are good about that. They’ve done it in the past, giving us a chance to soak it in. It’s something I will take for the rest of my life. Being able to put two in and not get blanked is definitely a bonus.”

Princeton head coach Ron Fogarty, who came to Princeton along with the Class of 2018, seeing his seniors thrive to the end was a bonus.

“For these two seniors [David Hallisey, Matt Nelson] to have four wins and five wins, a game under 500, and get to this stage and hoisting a trophy; not many teams get to do that,” said Fogarty, whose team ended the winter with a 19-13-4 record.

“They’ve done something special, they don’t have that feeling right now, but they’ll soon look back at this game and realize to get here is very difficult, and they did something spectacular for Princeton University.”

With Princeton having last won the ECACH tourney in 2008 and having last made the NCAA tourney in 2009, it was special being in Allentown and in the hunt for a spot in the Frozen Four.

“It’s so tough to win a trophy or a tournament; you get to the last 16 teams and you definitely have to earn your way, either through the body of work over the course of the season, or winning a championship,” added Fogarty.

“Moving forward, the seniors have had a lot of reference points in the program around both positively and negatively, but the majority positively. A lot of those first and second year losses were by one goal, and we started to learn to play the way of where we believe to get to this point.”

In reflecting on the loss to the Buckeyes, who went on to defeat Denver 5-1 the next day to win the regional, Fogarty acknowledged that Princeton ran into a tough foe.

“Today was Ohio State’s game,” said Fogarty, whose club fell behind 2-0 on a pair of goals scored in a 20-second span in the first period and then yielded a pair of goals in first 10 minutes of the third period. “I thought their defense is very good. They’re a very good team.”

Fogarty had a very good time guiding his squad through a stirring postseason run that saw the Tigers outscore their foes 29-10 in posting six straight playoff wins on the way to the ECACH title.

“It’s great to play at this time of the season, but just to see the smile on their faces coming to the rink every day and enjoying practice is very satisfying as a coach,” said Fogarty.

“They still enjoyed the past four years, but there’s a little more “oomph” in the step when they’re winning. Now, the program knows how to win. We have to make sure we’re moving forward that we remain sharp and have the focus in hand of hey, sometimes you don’t win a conference tournament, so let’s make sure our body of work through 29 games helps us in case any mishaps occur in the ECAC tournament.”

In Fogarty’s view, the Tigers are poised for more trips to the national stage.

“Where we’re at right now is a new starting point,” said Fogarty. “I’m sure this isn’t a finishing point for us, or waiting for another two, three, or ten years to get back.”

For Hallisey, seeing Princeton earn respect from its ECACH rivals was a high point of the postseason run.

“Just because of the history of Princeton in the past three years, being able to prove them wrong over and over and over again is just a lot of fun,” said Hallisey.

“We were able to do that there to win the ECAC championship. Yeah, we lost our last game, but the game before that was a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of memories there.”

Nelson, for his part, is leaving with indelible memories of his final campaign.

“Being able to lift a trophy; Princeton hasn’t done that for ten years,” said Nelson, recalling the 2-1 overtime triumph against Clarkson in the ECACH championship game.

“It’s something special. The whole school rallied behind us. We have great friends back on campus, great family and friends who traveled out here. I think it was something special for the entire community. To be able to put Princeton back on the map is something incredible and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

As Nelson leaves the program, he is very happy about the legacy being left by the Class of 2018.

“I think we can stay with and beat any team in the country now, and that’s going to be the standard moving forward,” said Nelson.