February 24, 2021

Surviving Grueling ECACH Series Against Quinnipiac Steeled Tiger Women’s Hockey for Historic Title Run

CAT FIGHT: Princeton University women’s hockey player Maggie Connors, right, gets pushed into the boards by a Quinnipiac defender last February during a best-of-three ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series. The Tigers survived a grueling weekend against the Bobcats, cruising in game one, losing game two in overtime, and then prevailing in the decisive final game in a double overtime thriller. Buoyed by that hard-earned triumph, Princeton went on to defeat Clarkson 5-1 in the league semis and then rally for a 3-2 overtime win at top-ranked Cornell in the final to earn the program’s first-ever ECACH crown. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

A year ago, the final weekend of February turned out to be both a marathon and a springboard to history for the Princeton University women’s hockey team.

Rising to No. 6 in the national polls, Princeton was hosting Quinnipiac for a best-of-three ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series starting on February 28 at venerable Hobey Baker Rink.

The Tigers were rolling, having gone 11-1-1 in their last 13 regal season games and they had swept Quinnipiac in two previous meetings in the 2019-20 campaign.

Opening the series, Princeton continued to sizzle, jumping out to a 4-1 lead in the first period on the way to a lopsided 5-1 victory in game one.

A day later, the Tigers went up 1-0 in the first period and seemed to be on track for a sweep of the underdog Bobcats.

But things turned dicey after that as Quinnipiac responded with two unanswered goals in the second period. The Tigers knotted the game at 2-2 late in the third period on a goal by senior star Carly Bullock. On the verge of being eliminated, the Bobcats pulled out a 3-2 win with a goal at 1:45 of the first overtime to force a decisive third game.

In the finale, Princeton scored twice to build a 2-0 advantage but Tiger sophomore star Sarah Filler sensed that the series was far from over.

“We knew we were going to get their best game, they are ranked 10 in the country,” said Fillier.

“I think arguably we play in the best league in the nation so we knew it was going to be a battle and we were excited to play this one.”

Sure enough, Quinnipiac refused to die, scoring two goals to force a second straight OT game.

In the first overtime, Princeton looked to finish off Quinnipiac, outshooting the Bobcats 16-6 but to no avail as the teams remained stalemated at 2-2.

In the break after the first extra period, Princeton team managers raided the refrigerator in the rink kitchen to microwave snacks to refuel the exhausted Tigers.

An energized Fillier ended the marathon, banging in a rebound off a shot by Bullock 8:36 into the second extra session.

“It was a 3-on-1 and I just wanted to get a pass early on to try to get their goalie to move and get their defense to readjust,” said a tired but grinning Fillier, recalling the sequence that led to the decisive tally.

“I wouldn’t want anyone else with the puck in the slot than Carly Bullock. I was happy she took that shot and luckily the goalie might have been tired and it came right to my stick.”

In Fillier’s view, the team’s work ethic helped it pull through.

“We are built for this, we strive with our fitness testing and lifts through the season,” asserted Fillier.

“We were ready for this game. We were prepared and we had confidence in that preparation.”

The deep bonds among the Tiger players also helped the squad overcome the challenge posed by Quinnipiac.

“We give a lot of credit to our bench, we were just talking about it in the room, everyone is built around this team and this team culture,” said Fillier.

“We never had a lack of energy. Everyone wanted to play for each other so I think that really helped. We have definitely come together through this adversity. We took a harder path than we hoped for and wanted to take. We got a lot out of this for our team and our culture.”

Princeton head coach Cara Morey believed that surviving the hard fight would be a plus for the Tigers.

“I am almost speechless, I can’t believe that we went through that,” said Morey.

“I think it is going to help us as we go on this path. We needed a lot of grit, a lot of mental toughness, and a lot of conditioning. I am still in shock, that was a battle.

At the ECACH Final Four held at top-ranked Cornell the next weekend, the Tigers utilized that grit to shock the competition.

In the semis against a seventh-ranked Clarkson team that had beaten it 2-1 on February 15, Princeton rode a three-goal outburst in the second period to a 5-1 victory.

“It was surreal, hockey is interesting, you can have a ton of chances and you can feel like they just never go in the net,” said Morey, reflecting on the win over Clarkson.

“Then all of a sudden, pucks are finding the back of the net. They were good goals. Their goalie is excellent so we really had to make sure that she couldn’t see the puck as the shots were coming. I think that was a big factor.”

The next day in the championship game against No. 1 Cornell, which was undefeated in league play and had posted a pair of regular season wins over the sixth-ranked Tigers (3-1 on November 2 and 5-1 on December 6), Princeton found itself trailing 2-0 three minutes into the game before rallying to pull out a 3-2 win on overtime.

“After the second goal, I was thinking ugh, let’s just keep this respectable,” said Morey.

“But after we all settled in and the girls started playing, the message was hey, it is fine, there is so much hockey left. It was 2-0 with 17 minutes left in the first period and 57 minutes left in the game. We had the advantage of less pressure, we weren’t expected to win. We knew we could win but the pressure was on Cornell.”

Displaying the fortitude that helped it overcome Qunnipiac, Princeton got goals from Fillier and Bullock in the second period to knot the game and eventually force overtime.

Less than a minute into OT, sophomore defenseman Mariah Keopple found the back of the net to give the Tigers a 3-2 win and the program’s first-ever ECACH title.

“I don’t think they realized how hard that first series was going to be,” said Morey. “I think it really prepared them for the next games.”

Morey wasn’t quite prepared to put the championship in perspective.

“It is such an elite league and to come out as champions of that, it took me until today to process it,” said Morey whose team improved to 26-6-1 with the win over Cornell, setting a program record for victories.

“I woke up and it was, oh my god we won the ECAC Championship. It is huge. I had no idea that Princeton had never even made it to the championship game. I looked on the trophy to see and it has been given out since 1984 so that is a bit shocking. It is such an honor to bring the cup back to Princeton. I feel like we have been on an upward trajectory for quite a few years so it is awesome to finally see us win.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic denied Princeton the chance to go for an NCAA crown as the national tourney was canceled, surviving the grueling weekend against Quinnipiac proved to be a key step in the Tigers’ drive to a historic championship.