February 22, 2023

With Senior Standout Walton Setting Positive Tone, PU Men’s Hockey Aiming to Gain Home Ice for Playoffs

PLAYOFF PUSH: Princeton University men’s hockey player Pito Walton controls the puck in a game earlier this season. Senior defenseman and captain Walton has starred as the Tigers have risen to seventh place in the ECAC Hockey standings, putting them in position to earn home ice for the first round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs. Princeton went 1-1 last weekend in its final regular season action at Hobey Baker Rink this season, edging Brown 3-2 on Friday before falling 4-0 to Yale a night later. The Tigers, now 12-15 overall and 8-12 ECACH, play at RPI on February 24 and at Union on February 25 to wrap up regular season action. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Pito Walton was determined to take an even-keeled approach as he took the ice at Hobey Baker Rink last Saturday night for his final regular season home game for the Princeton University men’s hockey team.

“I was trying to keep the emotions level throughout the game and stuff, obviously you can get caught up in it sometimes,” said Princeton senior defenseman and captain Walton. “I think ultimately it was not looking at it as the last game here, hoping that we can secure a couple of wins next weekend and be right back here for playoffs.”

The Tigers didn’t get the win against Yale in the finale, falling 4-0 despite outshooting the Bulldogs 40-25.

“It is just hockey, sometimes it just doesn’t go your way,” said Walton, a 6’2, 192-pound native of Peapack, who starred at the Lawrenceville School before coming up the road to Princeton. “We had a lot of good spurts out there but you have to put the puck in the back of the net to win games and unfortunately we didn’t do that tonight.”

Drawing on his experience, Walton wasn’t about to let the frustrating defeat get to him.

“I think mentally as you get older, you realize you can make an impact every single game,” said Walton, who has produced the best offensive season in his Princeton career, tallying 20 points on six goals and 14 assists this winter after totaling 16 points in his two prior seasons. “It is about taking that game into your hands, putting your best foot forward every game. You can’t get too down on yourself when you make a bad play. It is about responding. I think that is one area where I have really grown.”

Over the course of the winter, the Tigers, now 12-15 overall and 8-12 ECAC Hockey, have displayed resilience collectively as they were undeterred by a shaky 2-6 start.

“I think a big part of it is how we respond to adversity,” said Walton of the Tigers, who are currently in seventh place in the ECACH standings and in position to host a first-round playoff game as the teams in places five through eight in the final standings earn home ice while the teams in the top four get a bye into the quarterfinals. “I am really proud of the guys — not getting in a rut, not getting too down on themselves, and staying positive.”

With Princeton playing at RPI on February 24 and at Union on February 25, Walton is positive about the Tigers’ prospects as they head north.

“We have to win a couple of games this weekend; it is a good test for playoff hockey too,” said Walton. “We are really hopeful and excited. I think practice this week is huge — staying focused, staying dialed in on the details. That has been an emphasis all year, not taking things for granted and not going through the motions.”

As a battle-tested
performer on the blue line and team captain, Walton takes it upon himself to help keep his younger teammates focused.

“Being the only senior defenseman, that is one area where I really try to lead,” said Walton. “On the back end, we have a lot of really young, talented guys who can really be great here and they sometimes look to me. At the end of the day, I just tell them to trust themselves because they have the abilities to be really great.”

Princeton head coach Ron Fogarty felt that his team looked good in the loss to Yale but was snakebit.

“It just wasn’t our night, we had three bars (hitting three pipes with shots) and a breakaway,” said Fogarty, whose team started the weekend by edging Brown 3-2 on Friday night. “I feel for the senior group, it was their last regular season game here. It is one of those things, you do a lot of things. It is college hockey, it is tough to win and it just wasn’t our night.”

In assessing the setback, Fogarty pointed to one specific area of the game.

“We have to win special teams, I think that is a big thing; you have to win special teams, especially down the stretch,” said Fogarty.

“We lost the special teams last night and we lost it tonight, they scored a power play goal and we didn’t. We have got to get the power play going. It is an area of practicing and attention for this week.”

Getting home ice for the first-round playoff game is a big focus for the Tigers.

“It would be important, 38 percent of our team being first year players,” said Fogarty. “You want to have expectations when you come to this program that you can get home ice for the playoffs and eventually we want to be in the top four of the conference. We are in a little bit of a rebuild here with a lot of young guys. Next year we are bringing in seven, so we will have over 50 percent freshmen and sophomores. We want to make sure that it is ingrained in our culture that we expect home ice.”

Fogarty credited his senior group — which includes Liam Gorman, Matt Hayami, Spencer Kersten, and Aidan Porter in addition to Walton — with playing a key role in creating a positive culture around the program.

“They are tremendous leaders, they have done a tremendous job this year bringing the younger guys along,” said Fogarty. “We are expected to finish 12th because of what we returned and the perception of what we were bringing in. Everyone in this room knew we could be better. I feel for them because they have really bought into everything and have done a tremendous job with the eight young players. I know the guys want it really bad. We talk about legacy and the next 100 years; we got done the first 100 years with Hobey. They are going to be really missed but they are going to be deeply remembered for what they have done here.”

In Fogarty’s view, Walton is leaving a special legacy. “He has been a leader, he has been doing well offensively too,” said Fogarty. “When you start winning, you have players who are very impactful on and off the ice. You start to recruit players who resemble what that person brought to the program. So we are recruiting character players to this program. I think Tyler Rubin could be like a Pito Walton, he has been under Pito’s wing, watching it. Pito is someone who has earned his leadership. He worked really hard this summer. He has been someone who is very well respected in the hockey community in New Jersey and in college hockey.”

Walton, for his part, is hoping for another college game in New Jersey.

“I think it would be awesome, it is something we have worked for the whole year,” said Walton, reflecting on possibly getting a playoff game at Hobey Baker Rink. “Obviously we wanted to get a bye, but I think we are in a good spot.”