Princeton men’s hockey was mere seconds away from a historic win March 27 in its first-round NCAA tournament game against the University of Minnesota, Duluth, leading 4-2 with less than a minute left on the clock. Princeton fans in the stands celebrated. The band blasted its horns. But the party proved premature.
The Bulldogs, playing in front of a home-state crowd at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, scored two goals in the final 65 seconds of regulation and netted the game-winner with 6:21 remaining in overtime, tagging a heartbreaking ending onto the Tigers’ otherwise successful 2008–09 season.
“It’s a pretty empty feeling,” senior forward Brett Wilson said after the game. “We wanted to be the ones to give Princeton its first NCAA win.”
Princeton (22–12–1 overall, 14–8 ECAC) looked strong from the opening faceoff against UMD, scoring three straight goals to build a 3–1 lead halfway through the contest. Wilson tallied two of those three goals.
The Bulldogs trimmed the lead to 3–2 in the second period, but Princeton responded with a goal early in the third. With the Tigers up 4–2 and two minutes remaining, UMD pulled its goalie, adding another skater to the attack. But the move produced little offense until Princeton defenseman Matt Godlewski ’11 was put in the penalty box for a high stick. The 6-on-4 advantage helped the Bulldogs score on the ensuing play, with 1:05 remaining. The two teams battled for another minute, and UMD broke through again, tying the game with less than one second on the clock.
“It took two pretty special goals to tie [the game] up,” Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We had great play for 59 minutes.”
The Tigers had drawn an at-large bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament thanks to a third-place showing in the ECAC Hockey Championships a week earlier. In the ECAC semifinals against Cornell March 20, Princeton led 3–1 with less than three minutes remaining and seemed almost assured of a second-straight appearance in the ECAC final. But in a turn that would eerily foreshadow Princeton’s NCAA tournament loss, the Big Red stormed back, eventually tying the game with 24 seconds left.
Cornell netted the game-winner halfway through the second overtime period. It was a victory that echoed in reverse Princeton’s thrilling comeback against Cornell on Feb. 7. In the earlier meeting, the Tigers scored two goals in the final minute and won, 2–1.
For Princeton, the 2008–09 season was successful by most measures. The team started 15–2, ranked as high as No. 6 in the country, and played quality hockey in the ECAC and NCAA tournaments. Sadly, though, the legacy of the season may come down to a few minutes of heartbreak late in the third periods of two key games.
Freelance writer Andrew Robinton ’04 lives in New York City. Daily Princetonian executive editor for sports Eric Dodds ’10 contributed reporting from Minneapolis.