Three Tigers In Orange

One of the hallmarks of success for any forward line is the moment it acquires a nickname. Princeton University has had a few such units, including the trio dubbed the “Suburban Snipers” (Boston-area products John Messuri, Greg Polaski and Bart Blaeser, from 1985-1988) and the “Money Line” (Terry Morris, Brian Bigelow and Matt Zilinskas, who wore green jerseys in practice and scored timely goals from 1989-1991).

Finishing dead last in nominal creativity, but taking a back seat to no other recent Princeton unit in terms of skill or success, is the Tigers’ current triumvirate of center Jeff Halpern, left wing Scott Bertoli and right wing Casson Masters — otherwise known as the “Orange Line.”

Eighteen games into the season, the three players who wear orange practice jerseys have accounted for 30 goals, almost 45 percent of the Tigers’ total, and twenty of those goals have come in the last 10 games.

The Orange Line is also the driving force behind Princeton’s rejuvenated power play, which is firing at just under a 20-percent success rate. But most importantly, the unit has continued to lift Princeton to new heights as a program. The club is 10-5-4 coming off last season’s school record-tying 18 wins and a second appearance in the ECAC semifinals.

“The continuity to [the Orange Line’s] playmaking is unlike what we see from other teams in the league,” said Princeton head coach Don Cahoon. “They read off each other so well and constantly make themselves available for a play.”

This is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the parts are too shabby — Halpern is a bona fide All-America candidate, Masters is one of the fastest players in college hockey and Bertoli is among the top power forwards in the conference.

“They are a skilled group and all outstanding players,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet, who watched the Orange Line put up six goals against his Big Green on Jan. 9 in Hanover. “A one-on-two can become a scoring chance with any of those guys, which is a nice thing to have when your team isn’t completely on its game.”

To delineate between the three players, however, is to ignore their similarities. They can all skate and handle the puck well. All three are diligent defensive players. The three forwards also display a symbiotic relationship that often leaves the observer wondering, “How did he know the other guy was there?” Often, the no-look pass is completed as players cycle out of the corner in the offensive zone.

“We cycled well right away,” said Bertoli, who recalls that the unit first came together late in his freshman season. “We seem to do a good job finding where to go on the ice, and someone is always behind the net, waiting as a release. As a team, we work a lot on cycling in practice. For some reason, the three of us just clicked.”

The versatility of the three forwards makes it tough to keep the Orange Line in check. Force them to dump it in, and the three are happy to chase the puck down and start cycling. Mark them tightly to take away time and space and you are going to find yourself running into screen after screen as they move to open ice.

One might think that a line that thinks so well together is comprised of players from similar backgrounds or training. Not the case with this group. Bertoli is a native of Milton, Ont., part of Toronto’s network of sprawling suburbs. Masters is a farm boy from tiny Leduc, Alb.

Halpern is the most removed from the hockey mainstream. He is one of the dedicated few from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., who tenaciously pursued competitive hockey opportunities until he was given the chance to play at the collegiate level.

“I played for the Washington Little Capitals during the winter and the [Hartford] Junior Whalers in the summer as a kid. My dad would drive me up to Hartford for the weekend practices and we would stay with relatives for the tournaments,” said Halpern, who matriculated to St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., as a sophomore.

“At the end of prep school, there weren’t any Division I teams interested in me,” said Halpern, who was just 5-5 and 140 pounds at the time. “I was faced with choosing between Division III or going to a Division I school that didn’t really want me.

Then I met a coach at the Hockey Night in Boston summer tournament who asked me to play junior hockey at Stratford (Ont.).”

The forward’s rapid improvement and physical maturation soon attracted offers from Harvard, Rensselaer and other schools. Halpern has continued to progress and is now the most likely of the trio to earn postseason honors this season (Bertoli was Second Team All-Ivy as a sophomore and Halpern earned honorable mention).

The Potomac, Md., native has an 11-game point streak going, with 10 goals and 11 assists over that span. He has led the ECAC in overall scoring for most of the year and is ninth in the nation in points per game (15-15-30 in 19 games).

Moreover, he has been used as a defenseman in special teams situations, four-on-fours and the occasional five-on-five shift.

“Coach actually thought about moving me to defense permanently last year, but, fortunately, he changed his mind,” said Halpern. “I played back there fooling around as a kid every once in awhile, but I would much rather play forward.”

Halpern’s ability to go end-to-end and his passing skills from the blue line have helped offset the absence of Dominique Auger, the ECAC All-Rookie team member of a year ago who departed for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

In addition, Halpern’s once-questionable shot has improved dramatically, enough that he now possesses an accurate wrist shot and an above-average one-time slapshot. Halpern credits his youth league coaches for instilling him with the drive to improve and excel.

“I always had to work real hard to find good competition and learned to take advantage of the opportunities that I had; plus, I’ve always had real intense coaches. The guys think that (Cahoon) is intense, but my squirt and bantam coaches were 10 times more so.”

“Jeff is a little more intense than me and Casson,” admitted Bertoli. “We have both used some of that to increase our own intensity.”

Bertoli may be more laid-back off the ice, but his competitive streak reveals itself once the game begins. The 5-10, 200-pound forward made his mark as a body-checker in his freshman season before moving to the Orange Line. The Tigers, a bit undersized up front in recent years, have relied on timely collisions from Bertoli to keep other teams from taking undue advantage.

“I don’t have to go look for the big hit so much anymore,” Bertoli said. “Trying to do that every shift takes a lot out of you. Still, I would like to bring back some of the physical element that I relied on as a freshman.”

The pressure on the Orange Line to produce offensively has been, at times, enormous. Sophomore Benoit Morin, who joins the trio on the power play, has been an effective scorer, but some of the other players looked to for goals have struggled. Seniors Joey Pelle and Matt Brush have proven that they can score in the past, and several young players, including freshman Chris Corrinet and Shane Campbell, are expected to be productive in the future.

“I think [the line of junior] Jason Given and [seniors] Brush and Robbie Sinclair can help our offense,” Bertoli said. “They have a lot of experience and they have some similarities to us. Given is probably faster than Casson, Sinclair can get around and he plays the body well. Brush is good around the net. They create a lot of chances; sooner or later, they will start to score goals regularly.”

One consequence of the Tigers’ dependence on the Orange Line is that Princeton has struggled to maintain consistency. The other players occasionally seem to sit back and wait for Halpern et al. to weave their magic, rather than stepping up and asserting themselves.

“We have come out flat in a lot of games,” acknowledges Bertoli. “We went into Cornell and Colgate with a chance to be in first place and got swept, had a big game at home against Yale and came out flat. Vermont was a huge game and we just couldn’t get going. It is just a lack of concentration, not realizing what is at stake.”

As the elder statesman on the line, Masters is well aware of the importance of every game. He was an impact player as a freshman, leading his classmates in points with 24, and earning recognition as one of the ECAC’s top rookies. Three years later, he knows that time is running out on a memorable part of his life.

“As a senior, you start to play every game as if it is your last,” Masters said. “The team we have this year is probably the most skilled that I have played on here. This could be the year for us, and I just want to make it the best that I can.”

Masters, like Bertoli, laments the Tigers’ lack of consistency this season.

“Guys have not been giving it the same effort every night. When everyone isn’t there, it makes it tough to win in this league,” he said. “If we all have the mindset that we are ready to play, I think we can beat any team in the country.”

The Tigers proved their mettle with wins over Boston University at home and a shutout win over Merrimack on the road, in addition to hard-earned points against Rensselaer, Harvard and St. Lawrence. A good second semester could put them in the ECAC’s top four, a position that would match the expectations of the league coaches’ preseason poll.

Aside from how far the Orange Line will lead Princeton this season, the biggest question facing the trio is who will fill Masters’ spot on the wing next year. Bertoli feels that it should be someone who can do the things that Casson does best; specifically, pressuring opposing defensemen with his speed.

That theory would give Given or Doyle first crack. Or Cahoon could look for adding some size to the mix, say 6-4, 225-pound freshman Corrinet. But regardless of who gets the plum spot on the Orange Line next year, Halpern and Bertoli’s success is likely to continue.

Let’s just hope that someone can give them a better name.