ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Princeton men’s hockey came to the NCAA Midwest Regional looking to make history.
Top-seeded Ohio State denied the fourth-seeded Tigers their first NCAA tournament win, 4-2, at the PPL Center on Saturday despite 24 saves from goalie Ryan Ferland ’21 and last-minute goals from Matt Nelson ’18 and David Hallisey ’18.
“The pain and feelings are temporary for our guys,” said Princeton head coach Ron Fogarty. “What they did this season will be unforgettable for our fans, and our alumni and for themselves.
“They’ve done something special,” he added. “They don’t have that feeling right now, but soon they’ll be able to look back at this game and realize they did something spectacular for Princeton University.”
The loss snapped Princeton’s nation-leading 8-game unbeaten streak and finished their season at 19-13-4. The Tigers had not lost a game since Feb. 17. Ohio State, which lost in the Big Ten Championship, improved to 25-9-5 and advanced to play the winner of Penn State and Denver in the regional final Sunday.
Princeton reached the NCAA Tournament after earning the automatic berth as ECAC Hockey champions. Princeton went through second-seeded Union, then top-seeded Cornell, and finally third-seeded Clarkson, 2-1, in overtime to win the ECAC title Mar. 17. Princeton also won ECAC titles in 1998 and 2008 and reached the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection in 2009.
“It’s something Princeton hadn’t been a part of since ’09 when they made it to the tournament,” Nelson said. “Just being a part of the experience, being able to lift the trophy, Princeton hasn’t done that for 10 years. It’s something special. I think the whole school rallied behind us. We have great friends back on campus, great family and friends that traveled out here. It’s something special for the entire community. To be able to put Princeton back on the map, it’s something incredible and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Princeton dropped to 0-4 all-time in NCAA tournament play and also are winless in four meetings all-time with Ohio State.
“Experience is great,” Fogarty said. “Ohio State lost last year in the tournament in overtime. They took that experience to move forward with it. Where we’re at right now is almost a new starting point. I want to make sure this isn’t a finishing point for us.”
It was defense that won the matchup of one of the top offensive and one of the top defensive teams in the country. Ohio State entered the game fifth in the nation in scoring defense, and Princeton was third in the country in scoring offense. Princeton was held scoreless for the first 59 minutes, but finished with school records for points (368), goals (131), and assists (237) in a season.
Princeton also had the nation’s third-best power play while Ohio State had the best penalty kill. Princeton went 1-for-7 on the power play Saturday, exactly half as effective as they had been this season. The Tigers’ own penalty kill unit was a bright spot while holding Ohio State to 1-for-6 on the power play. In all, there were 16 penalties between the two teams.
“There wasn’t much of a flow to the game,” Fogarty said. “It was a special-teams game. To move on in tournament play, you have to win that battle. We did not win that battle until later with the seniors on the ice. Maybe I should have put the senior power play on the ice sooner.”
Nelson snapped in a bullet from the left point off passes from Joe Grabowski ’18 and Hallisey for a power-play goal to end the shutout with 26 seconds left. Only 17 seconds later, Hallisey notched another goal for the Tigers with assists from Max Becker ’18 and Nelson.
“It’s something I’ll take for the rest of my life,” Nelson said. “Being able to put two in and not get blanked is definitely a bonus.”
Added Hallisey: “If there is a way to go out, this is probably the best way to go out with the senior class on the ice scoring twice.”
Princeton had to play from behind for a majority of the game. Ohio State scored a power-play goal with 6:28 left in the first period, then got a second goal 20 seconds later to take all the momentum. Princeton spent the remainder of the game trying to claw back.
Princeton’s chances of a comeback were hurt when Josh Teves ’19, who entered the game leading all defenders in the nation with 33 points, received a game misconduct for contact to the head just 1:37 into the second period.
“We got together and things just didn’t go the way we wanted them to,” Hallisey said. “It would have helped to have him, but it falls on everyone. We should have picked up the slack.”
Princeton put together an outstanding effort to kill off the ensuing 5-minute power play, and had a chance to gain more momentum and pull within a goal when Becker skated out ahead of everyone, but his breakaway shot was thwarted by Ohio State goalie Sean Romeo, who finished with 23 saves. The Ohio State defense also blocked 21 shots.
Liam Grande ’20 gave Princeton another chance when he forced a turnover deep in the Ohio State zone only to have his one-on-one shot turned away halfway through the second period.
Princeton went on the power play again with under seven minutes left in the second period, but Ohio State kept the Tigers scoreless despite a dangerous shot from Ryan Kuffner ’19 that Romeo deflected up.
The Tigers went on the power play for the fifth time just one minute into the third period with the chance to gain momentum, but again could not crack the Ohio State defense. They had a great chance just as the power play ended as Grande fed Eric Robinson ’18 on the doorstep for a shot that was saved. Less than a minute later, Princeton fell behind, 3-0, when Tanner Laczynsk took a little feed from Freddy Gerard and put it behind Ferland.
A sixth Princeton power play also came up short with a bullet of a shot from Kuffner in the right circle being saved midway through the final period. Luke Stork fired the puck off the boards behind the goal and Gerard knocked it in for Ohio State’s final goal with 9:12 left.
Goalie Ben Halford ’18 played the final 1:47 to wrap up his career. The Tigers will graduate eight seniors that engineered a massive turnaround over their careers. They won only four games as freshmen and five as sophomores. Last year, they won their ECAC first-round matchup, and this year they broke through with an ECAC title.
“You could just see it coming,” Fogarty said. “Our staff has many years of experience so we’ve been around teams that are starting to break, and it was starting to break. Once we started to manage the puck better, and play 60 minutes of smart hockey … we morphed from an attacking team on the rush to a team that was chipping and retrieving pucks. And we’re careful around both blue lines, and that yielded more close wins.”
The seniors were a part of Fogarty’s first season at Princeton, when the expectations started to turn. There were narrow losses that masked the improvements of the Tigers, who put it all together this year.
“When we came in, the culture of the team was a losing culture,” Nelson said. “Guys expected to lose every single night. Over the last four years, that changed. Things started to click last year and you could see it all come together this year at the end of the year in the playoff run. I think we can play with and beat any team in the country, and that’s going to be the standard moving forward.”
The Tigers will return leading scorers Max Veronneau ’19, who set the Princeton record for points in a season with 55, one better than John McBride ’60, and Kuffner, who was just behind with 52 points. They will be among the senior leaders along with key players like Ferland who want another shot at an NCAA tournament win.
“It’s fun to get here,” Fogarty said. “I know it’s going to be a contagious feeling for our three classes who are returning and they’ll pass that on to our incoming freshmen and we’ll be here again for sure.”