Monday, October 4, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Princeton

Just in time for the season to get underway tomorrow night, we bring the final installment of "Know Your Enemy." This program has the honor of having been the home of one of the greatest collegiate hockey players in the history of the sport, but as a team they have had the least amount of success of any team playing as long as they have during the modern era.

Nickname: Tigers
Location: Princeton, NJ
Founded: 1746
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2009
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Guy Gadowsky (7th season)
2009-10 Record: 12-16-3 (8-12-2 ECAC, 8th place)
Series: RPI leads, 62-28-9
First Game: January 18, 1952 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 10, 2010 (Princeton, NJ)
Last PU win: February 20, 2010 (Troy, NY)

2010-11 games: February 5, 2011 (Princeton, NJ); February 25, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Mike Kramer, sr.; F Matt Arhontas, sr.; F Marc Hagel, jr.; F Andrew Calof, fr.; D Taylor Fedun, sr.; D Derrick Pallis, jr.; D Michael Sdao, so.; D Kevin Ross, fr.; G Sean Bonar, fr.

Key losses: F Dan Bartlett, F Mark Magnowski, F Cam McIntyre, D Jody Peterson, G Zane Kalemba

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Tigers didn't live up to their lofty expectations last season. Kalemba was supposed to be better than he was, and the offense was supposed to be much better than it was. Engineers fans saw a glimpse of the Princeton that was supposed-to-be in the Freakout!, but apparently it was a one-night-only deal.

Like the rest of their Ivy League brethren, Princeton hockey began around the turn of the 20th century, getting underway in November 1900 with a game at New York's St. Nicholas Rink. During the Tigers' first decade, the team generally won more games than they lost, playing schedules that were a mix of amateur teams and other colleges. It was not until the early 1910s, that Princeton would become a notable program, powered by one of the greatest players in college hockey history - Hobey Baker.

Baker led Princeton to de facto national championships in 1912 and 1914, his sophomore and senior years at Old Nassau. During his time in New Jersey, the Tigers had a record of 33-11-0, and Baker himself famously took only a single penalty in his entire collegiate career. Crowds would jam St. Nicholas - whose amateur program he would join after graduating, turning down a $20,000 contract from the Montreal Canadiens to stay amateur - to watch Baker play, with the marquee frequently reading "Hobey Baker Plays Here Tonight."

Baker served in World War I, earning three confirmed kills as a pilot (two short of earning the title of "ace") and was tragically killed in an accident just hours after receiving his orders to return to the United States after the war. After the loss of their greatest alumnus, Princeton, whose hockey programs had been struggling since his graduation, constructed the Hobey Baker Memorial Rink, the school's first indoor rink on campus, in his honor. The team plays in that very same rink today, the second oldest hockey arena still in operation in the world, behind Northeastern's Matthews Arena.

The opening of Baker Rink helped propel Princeton to their first winning season since Baker's senior year, as the Tigers went 12-5-1 in their first year in the new building and 12-6-0 the following year. The remainder of the 1920s were mediocre, but Princeton returned to the top in the 1930s. The Tigers were dominant in the first half of that decade (setting a school record for wins in 1932-33 with 15, a record that would stand for over 60 years) and were more of a "feast or famine" type team in the latter half of the decade. During World War II, Princeton kept the program going - and playing well - through 1943 before suspending the program. That would end the good times in Princeton.

When the team returned in 1946, the glory of the Baker years and the early 1930s was gone. As the modern era of college hockey got underway, the Tigers would struggle to just four winning seasons in the 16 years between the return of the program and the advent of the ECAC in 1961. But it would only get worse from there for the Tigers.

Between 1960 and 1994 - a span of 34 seasons under six different coaches - the Tigers had a grand total of one winning season (1967-68, with a 13-10-1 record) and reached the 10-win mark only nine times. Although they were rarely the very worst in the ECAC, given that they finished with the league's worst record only three times in that stretch, Princeton hockey was practically always an afterthought within the league, never competitive for ECAC or Ivy League honors.

Don "Toot" Cahoon took the reins of the program in 1991 and began the process of turning the Tigers from perpetual also-rans into contenders. The Tigers had three more losing seasons in Cahoon's first three seasons as he began to mold the team through recruiting, but 1995 was a breakout year for Princeton. The Tigers finally broke the school record set in 1933 by winning 18 games, and after a 7th place finish in the ECAC, went on a Cinderella run through the ECAC playoffs, knocking off Union and Brown in the first two rounds, upsetting top-seeded Clarkson in the semifinals to advance to their very first ECAC championship game. RPI would win the day, 5-1, but the Tigers were primed to begin fighting for titles.

1996 was a step backwards for Princeton as they finished with a 7-19-4 record, but Cahoon would have the Tigers contending again quickly. Three winning seasons followed from 1997 to 1999, including Princeton's very first ECAC championship in 1998 as the Tigers completed a second Cinderella run through the ECACs by upsetting Clarkson in two overtimes in the title game to advance to their very first NCAA tournament. In 1999, Princeton won 20 games for the first time in school history while also winning the program's first official Ivy League title (split with Yale), but the Tigers would ultimately miss out on a second NCAA appearance when Clarkson got their revenge for the previous year's title game loss in the semifinals.

Don Cahoon's departure in 2000 to take over at UMass dealt a blow to the upstart program, and under alumnus and long time assistant coach Len Quesnelle, the Tigers appeared to be reverting to the form that had been typical for decades in New Jersey. From 2000 through 2004, under Quesnelle, Princeton suffered a dismal 29-84-11 record. Quesnelle was let go - going back to working under Cahoon at UMass - and the search began for a coach that could bring the Tigers to respectability. That coach was found in the farthest reaches of the college hockey world: Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Guy Gadowsky.

Like Cahoon before him, Gadowsky slowly got the program up to steam in his first few seasons. The Tigers would go through three more losing seasons (making eight in a row following their Ivy League title year), but the team was gradually getting better. Then, in 2008, Princeton caught lightning in a bottle, finishing second in the ECAC with 21 wins - their highest finish ever - claiming their first outright Ivy League title and sweeping through the ECAC playoffs to win their second championship. The following year, Gadowsky and the Tigers set the bar higher, setting a school record with 22 wins and earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Princeton very nearly earned their first NCAA tournament win, holding a two-goal lead with a minute left, but collapsed in the waning moments against Minnesota-Duluth to lose in overtime.

Considering that the Tigers had improved every year under Gadowsky and that they had brought back a significant chunk of the team that had made back-to-back NCAA appearances, it's no wonder why they were picked to finish 2nd in the ECAC last season. But injuries and poor play through much of the season doomed Princeton, as the Tigers barely snuck into the final home-ice spot on the last day of the regular season, then crashed and burned to Harvard in the first round. Kalemba was a shadow of the goaltender that had claimed the Ken Dryden Award the previous season. The penalty kill that had been so key in 2009 became practically non-existent in 2010. Bartlett, Magnowski, and Kramer put up halfway decent numbers, but production trailed off from there, and the former two have now graduated.

But there is some good news moving forward. Gadowsky is still bringing in good talent, and this year's class appears to be one of the better ones in the ECAC. Calof was initially committed to Harvard, but after failing to make it through the admissions process, Princeton was quick to snap him up. Bonar is a 6'1" goaltender who was the starting goaltender for Team Canada West in the World Junior A challenge last year, taking tournament MVP honors and All-BCHL honors as a teammate of Luke Curadi at Penticton.

The problem is, some of the best talent is still young. If Gadowsky brings in another solid class next season, the Tigers may well be working their way back up the ECAC ladder. If Princeton is to do much of anything this season, they're going to need big seasons from Kramer and Arhontas and get breakout years from some of the guys who were role-players last year. On paper, this is not a team that looks terribly dangerous, but then again, they looked dangerous on paper last year and that never panned out. Much like with Quinnipiac, the early season projections shouldn't trouble the Engineers at all, since they won't face the Tigers until the very end of the season, and by that time we'll know all we need to know about what to expect.

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