Men’s hockey blanks Princeton in ECAC playoffs

by Gayne Kalustian | 3/8/15 7:01pm

If any lesson can be taken from the first weekend of postseason play for the men’s ice hockey team, it’s this: the team’s abilities are not in question, but if they want it, they’re going to have to work for it.

The team swept 12th seed Princeton University this weekend in the first round of the ECAC tournament. The fifth-seeded Big Green took the Tigers 3-2 on Friday before James Kruger ’16 picked up his third shutout of the season on 17 saves for the team’s 2-0 victory on Saturday night.

Despite pitting the Big Green against the lowest ranked team in the ECAC, the two games were incredibly close throughout much of the gameplay, catapulted forth by the Tigers’ “all-or-nothing” attitude which, when paired with its physical style of play, made them a deceptively tough opponent.

To skip the play-by-play, Princeton came to Thompson Arena on Friday night and played to the Big Green’s level, netting the first goal of the game and giving the home crowd a genuine scare. It was a one-goal game all night long, in favor of both teams at one point or another, though alternate captain Eric Neiley ’15 netted a late goal to put the Big Green over the top.

Head coach Bob Gaudet said he wasn’t surprised about how the game went because Princeton is known for its physicality. Similarly, Geoff Ferguson ’16 called it “one of the most physical games [they’ve] had all year.

“We definitely didn’t have our best effort tonight, and we’ll have to come out stronger tomorrow because they came out tonight and proved that they were a good team,” Ferguson said of the game on Friday.

The two teams played a tight game on Saturday — fun to watch, back and forth hockey — out of which emerged yet another victory for the Big Green. The score, however, remained tied or within just a single point for all but the final five seconds of the game. Kruger said that by Saturday night, the team knew it was going to be a close-checking, low-scoring game.

“[Princeton was] kind of bottling us up with their trap, and we were doing the same with them just getting pucks out of our zone,” he said. “So, I think it was kind of going to be a low scoring battle from the start.”

As the men move forward, though, they will face much more skilled opponents than Princeton. All of the top four teams in the ECAC were nationally ranked going into this weekend, including ECAC quarterfinals host Colgate University, who’s tied with Dartmouth for a fourth-place ranking in the ECAC and ranked at No. 18 in the nation.

The Big Green has yet to win a game against Colgate this season, but the two teams will face off in a three-game series this coming weekend in Hamilton, New York. The two played to a 2-2 tie on Jan. 23, which kick-started a seven game no-loss streak for the Big Green. Just as Colgate served as the catalyst for a streak of good hockey for the Big Green, though, it would also see that streak come to an end. The men lost to Colgate 0-3 on Feb. 14, during which the team played one of its worst played, and arguably worst called, games of the year.

The Big Green is the only real contender in the ECAC who hasn’t broken into the NCAA’s top-20 this year, most likely counted down because the difficulty of pegging the team’s one true strength. The Big Green’s top point scorer, Neiley, is tied for 64th in the country. The men do not sit among the top penalty killers in the NCAA — 47th nationally — and they aren’t particularly potent on their power plays either, ranked 42nd in the country. The team’s overall defense is ranked 17th while its team offense is 25th, so these stats are slightly better, but still not “best in the nation” good. So what makes them a threat to teams which have spent all season at the top of the NCAA?

The penalty kill, which Gaudet described as “fabulous” this weekend, killed all four penalties it faced. Moreover, the team itself took only four penalties in each of the games it played against the Tigers this weekend. The team, who averages 4.3 penalties per game in conference play, played with incredible discipline against one of the roughest teams in the NCAA.

Schierhorn himself took an unseen stab to the throat on Friday night next to the posts in the offensive zone that put him on all fours on the ice and caused the typically very reserved player to retaliate, but not enough to put his team at a disadvantage. Tommy Davis, the Tiger sophomore who threw his stick, was suspended by the ECAC for his conduct in Friday night’s game and was deemed ineligible to compete against the Big Green the next day.

For reasons not quite apparent, Corey Kalk ’18 was at the receiving end of relentless contact on Saturday. When he threw it back cleanly in a hard check, the athlete was thrown onto the posts, stomach first, but still skated away.

Even Brandon McNally ’15 lumbered away from an uncalled tripping penalty committed by Princeton on Saturday, likely in attempt to inflame the power forward to gain a man advantage in the closing minutes.

The referees, Schierhorn said, were letting the players play the game, which made the Big Green very careful not to be called on any retaliation penalties. This type of care and discipline, which keeps the Big Green playing their own game and not their opponent’s, could be crucial against Colgate this weekend, who got the better of Dartmouth’s temper in their last meeting.

Between the pipes, Kruger is ranked sixth in the country in goals against average — 14th in save percentage. He comes up with, Schierhorn said, “saves he really shouldn’t even be able to make,” while Gaudet praised his ability to snuff out scoring opportunities just outside the crease.

“When he gets beat, it’s typically a really good shot, but he makes those saves in traffic which are really hard and he makes them look pretty easy because he’s big and square to the puck,” Gaudet said. “The puck seems to stick to him.”

Offensively, Dartmouth puts its opponents in a conundrum. The team brings with it two lines, which, on many teams, could both considered first lines. Simply saying “having two lines that can score” is a gross oversimplification of the benefit these two lines bring with them.

The Robinson, Schierhorn and captain Tyler Sikura ’15 line and the Grant Opperman ’17, Neiley and McNally line leave teams with the pressure of deciding how to match their own lines. Should they decide to power protect their own top line against Dartmouth’s third and fourth lines — which overall might not even be effective considering Kalk’s +4 rating and the +3 rating of Carl Hesler ’18 — they find themselves struggling against two very offensively potent sets of forwards. If they put a shut-down line on the ice against Sikura and his linemates, do they have a second shut down line strong enough to take on Neiley and his line, which has been scoring most of the goals recently?

Should they put their top line against the — technically unlabeled — first line of Sikura, Robinson and Schierhorn, they have to be concerned about their own second line’s viability against Neiley, McNally and Opperman. If their second line is as skilled as Dartmouth’s “second line,” are they also big and strong enough to win battles in the corners against the powerful likes of Neiley and McNally? And, if a team has all of that ­— lines which can play at different levels to different strengths — then the threat of the double line goes pretty much nowhere and hopefully good hockey ensues. Enter Colgate game one, a very strong defensive team with whom the Big Green actually tied for fourth place, broken on the head to head by a tie and loss for Dartmouth.

Colgate is another team with two effective lines, led by junior Kyle Baun and the Spink twins, Tyson and Tylor, and backed up by Mike Borkowski and Darcy Murphy. Additionally, the Raiders have the No. 6 defense in the country, allowing an average of just 2.12 goals per game. Interestingly enough, from a point perspective, Colgate’s John Lidgett has been the Big Green’s biggest threat. Lidgett has picked up four points on three goals and an assist across the two match-ups — good for half of his season goals and just over a quarter of his season points.

The series should be, without a doubt, very close as both teams bring depth, Opperman said.

“I think we’re just going to have to execute,” he said. “I put emphasis on that because they’re pretty good defensively and they’re really good when they have the lead, so I’d say emphasis on the first period and emphasis on our chances because they’re pretty stingy.”

The jump from a rough-and-tumble Princeton to the fine-tuned Raiders will be somewhat dramatic for the Big Green, who head to Hamilton in the middle of finals period. The signs of discipline the Big Green displayed against the Tigers are an indication that the series with Colgate will swing more in the direction of the 2-2 tie instead of the 0-3 loss.

In a more intangible sense, the facts that the Big Green was down early on Friday and still won and came back on Saturday after playing a sub-potential game on Friday to shut out the Tigers are yet a couple more in a long list of reasons to give Dartmouth the benefit of the doubt on its quest toward Lake Placid, New York, for the ECAC semifinals and finals on the following weekend.

Certainly, the men’s hockey team has been beaten. There is no way to fully know who will take the bid to semifinals, and there are points of the Big Green’s game which — if perfected — would make it a stronger contender.

But even if the team has been left out of the conversation about the best teams in the country, be sure that if it plays how it can and puts in the work that it must, there are always reasons to believe.