PRINCETON, N.J. — If the film industry has the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” then the college hockey industry needs only two degrees of separation to connect most coaches.
This theory was on display Friday night as Princeton opened its new season, with new uniforms and, most importantly, a new head coach for the first time in nine years.
They also opened it with a win, defeating Niagara, 3-1, at Hobey Baker Rink behind 30 saves from junior Dave Stathos.
Replacing Don Cahoon behind the bench was long-time right-hand man, and 1988 Princeton graduate, Len Quesnelle. Behind the other bench was Blaise MacDonald, an assistant in ’88 under fellow Boston University graduate, Jim Higgins, when Quesnelle was a senior. Quesnelle replaced MacDonald as an assistant, then stayed on as Cahoon, another BU graduate, followed Higgins.
This spring, both MacDonald and Cahoon went after the UMass-Amherst coaching vacancy. MacDonald pulled out of the running, and Cahoon got the job.
“I’m happy as heck he [Cahoon] got that job,” said MacDonald. “And I’m happy for Lenny.”
So, Friday night was time for Quesnelle to finally wrest control from all these BU people, and put his stamp on a program that progressed by leaps and bounds under Cahoon.
“People said, ‘When are you going to be nervous?’ ” Quesnelle said. “I thought, if I was, it would be just when they dropped the puck. But I wasn’t really nervous.”
Still, it was a bit unusual for Quesnelle, used to stepping aside while Cahoon went through a game in his own animated way.
“My voice is sore, though. I did a lot of yelling. [I'm] the go-to guy now,” he said.
It was a good first test for the Tigers, a young team with a lot to prove, and their coach. And, after losing to Niagara, 7-2, in last season’s opener, Princeton wanted to show it was ready for the Purple Eagles this year.
“We knew they lost some guys,” said Tigers’ junior forward Josh Roberts, “but they still have a solid nucleus, and they have the experience from playing in the tournament.”
Niagara, which lost 16 players to graduation, played eight freshmen.
“Even though they lost a lot of guys, it’s still a team that knows how to win,” said Stathos, who was on the short end of last year’s loss. “I still had that 7-2 game in my mind.”
The teams muddled their way through a couple of scrappy periods, devoid of too many scoring chances, playing to a 1-1 tie.
In the third, Princeton (1-0-0) came out banging, and used some determination to notch the go-ahead goal. Chris Corrinet’s backhander across the middle got deflected in by Parsons, who had battled for position in front with a Niagara defender. The goal came at 3:40 of the third, and it stood up, despite an increase in pressure from the Purple Eagles.
“Coach Quesnelle emphasized taking the body,” said Roberts. “They’re a gritty team, and the only way to combat that is to bump them back.”
Said MacDonald: “I knew they would play hard and disciplined. … They didn’t engage in too many extra-curricular activities.”
Princeton dressed seven freshman, but only one of those was on defense. And that defender, Steve Slaton, who converted from forward late in juniors, showed a lot of poise with the puck.
The Tigers played just four defensemen in the third period, with Trevor Beaney on the bench, and Peter Zavodny leaving in the first period with a shoulder injury. But despite a lengthy stretch of about eight minutes where Niagara had a dominant territorial advantage, the remaining four Princeton defenseman — Dave Schneider, Slaton, Dave Bennett and Neil McCann — played in mid-season form, keeping Niagara away from the front of the net.
“I was able to see all the shots,” said Stathos. “In the third, I always gave up a rebound on the first shot, but it was right in front and I always had time to clear it.”
Said MacDonald, “Where we were deficient was in attention to detail, our thoroughness of getting the puck out of the zone.”
Princeton started the scoring when Ethan Doyle roofed a shot past Purple Eagles goalie Scott Lindsay with just five seconds left in the first period. Doyle scored the first Princeton goal in last week’s exhibition game against Wilfrid Laurier with just one second left in the second period.
The Purple Eagles (1-4-2) struck back quickly just 36 seconds into the second period, taking advantage of a giveaway. Hannu Karru, another in an increasing number of Finnish imports to the Niagara program, scored his third goal of the season.
A turning point came about seven minutes later, after Princeton’s Dan Hursh went off for interference. Right off the faceoff, Niagara was able to fired two quick, point-blank shots on Stathos, but the Tiger netminder made two of his best saves of the night to keep it a tie game.
“It was a great effort out of David. He’s capable of some big games,” Quesnelle said.
Princeton played without captain Kirk Lamb, who left late in last week’s game with Laurier with an injury. He will miss Saturday’s game with Niagara, and is questionable for next weekend’s league opener against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. The Tigers were also missing senior Shane Campbell, who went back home because of a death in the family.
Meanwhile, Doyle was an unsung hero all night, playing bigger than his 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame, and doing a good job clearing the zone to set up Josh Roberts’ game-clinching, empty-net goal.
“Everyone did a good job filling the void in their absence,” said Quesnelle.
As an Ivy League school, Princeton is usually behind other teams, and then has to play catch-up as the year goes on. So the significance of the win wasn’t lost on Stathos.
“It was key to break the ice tonight,” he said. “There’s a lot of young guys, and no matter how well coach tries to motivate you, you need the win. You always know you have that win to fall back on. With freshman, you don’t want to go too long without one.”
Niagara has played in three time zones the last three weeks, with games at Nebraska-Omaha, Ohio State, two at Air Force, and now two at Princeton. MacDonald hopes his team will settle in for Saturday’s game, and then build momentum going into next week’s Punch Imlach Classic games, in which they will host Western Michigan at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena.
“At this level, it’s hard for freshman to be go-to guys,” said MacDonald. “We’ve had a very difficult schedule to start, with a lot of travel, and it’s very hard on a young team.”
“We would like to continue the momentum we had in the third period [in Saturday's game]. We’ll try to build off that.”