Right Around The Corner

Scan the Princeton roster and you’ll find the usual hockey hotbeds of Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ontario and others. Keep going, though, and you’ll find that one of the key players in the Tigers’ resurgence has come from their own backyard in sophomore netminder and Saddle Brook, N.J., native Zane Kalemba.

Since a 5-2 win over Dartmouth on Jan. 4, it’s been all Kalemba in the Tigers’ cage. He made 22 saves that night, and then completed a weekend home sweep by making 31 stops as Princeton pulled out a late 2-1 victory over then-No. 15 Harvard.

Princeton went on to win 11 of its first 13 games in 2008, all with Kalemba between the pipes, as he stopped 305 of 331 shots and also notched his second career shutout.

Modestly, though, he deflects any acclaim as easily as he does incoming slappers from the point.

“We started to get hot, and I just happened to be in net,” said Kalemba.

Don’t tell that to Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky.

“Give Zane a lot of credit,” said Gadowsky after a 4-2 win over Yale on Feb. 9 that featured a season-high 34 stops from Kalemba. “Not only for making the saves, but for being a calming influence back there, with the chances we take and the (offensive) style we play.”

The 5-11, 185-pound Kalemba played his formative hockey in his native Garden State, first with the New Jersey Devils Youth Organization, and then with the Atlantic District in the summers under former Princeton assistant coach John Riley. Kalemba was also part of a state high school championship team as a freshman at Bergen Catholic, and then spent several years at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut before going the junior route.

“I got drafted by Tri-City (USHL) and then got traded two months into the season to Green Bay and finished the year there,” recalled Kalemba. He saw action in a team-high 28 contests with the Gamblers, but that was the extent of his experience in Wisconsin.

“I was cut in the offseason and had already committed to Princeton,” he said.

He inquired of Gadowsky where he could find some solid competition for one winter, and wound up suiting up with Flin Flon of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League instead of joining the Tigers a year early.

“He probably could have done it, but it’s good for a goalie to travel and get a bit of experience,” said Gadowsky. “Zane is a veteran guy, with a lot of experience in different situations, and it allows him to be composed.”

Kalemba recorded 20 wins for Flin Flon in 2005-06, and was also named the Bombers’ Most Valuable Player. Being over 2,100 miles away from home didn’t prove to be a problem, as relatives visited northern Manitoba more than “Cheers” regulars ventured to Seattle to drop in on Dr. Frasier Crane.

“I’ve always had a lot of support from everyone in my family,” said Kalemba. “My dad made it out to Flin Flon at least every month, and has made it to every game this year. My mom made it out to a couple of games in the USHL, and my brother, Zac, came out for a few, too.”

Zac actually preceded Zane into the NCAA ranks, and once led American International College in scoring.

The younger Kalemba brother went back home to New Jersey the following year and finished 8-11-1 in his first collegiate campaign at Princeton, a place he had envisioned playing at since he skated for Hotchkiss.

“It was when Coach Gadowsky first got here,” said Kalemba of his college choice. “I came down for an unofficial visit and liked what I saw and heard from him about turning around the program, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Kalemba actually made his Princeton debut in his old Devils Youth Hockey rink of South Mountain Arena in October of 2006, stopping all 15 shots he faced in playing half of the season opener against Bentley. He then notched his first career win the following month in a 17-save effort at eventual ECAC champion Clarkson. He also posted victories at Harvard and Quinnipiac and against Nebraska-Omaha, Rensselaer and Clarkson at Princeton’s Hobey Baker Memorial Rink.

The first half of the 2007-08 season saw all three goaltenders on the Princeton roster in Kalemba, junior Thomas Sychertz and freshman Alan Reynolds garnering playing time. It was the New Jersey native who finally emerged in the new calendar year as the No. 1 netminder, as the Tigers climbed to No. 14 in the nation and second in the ECAC, with a shot at winning the league in the final weekend.

Princeton also clinched its fifth Ivy League title, and first one outright since 1953, with a 5-2 victory at Dartmouth on Feb. 16 that featured a 24-save effort by Kalemba, who is majoring in sociology.

“The job alone that Zane has done has been excellent, but it’s more than that,” said Gadowsky before Kalemba made 15 saves in a 7-2 thrashing of Colgate on Feb. 22. “We have a young defense corps, but he’s so focused and calm that the way he plays the game is even more important than the numbers he puts up.

“He’s very timely and makes the big saves at times that can turn the momentum around,” added Gadowsky. “It’s made a huge difference in many wins this season.”

Kalemba hopes to continue to do so past his Princeton playing days.

“My goal has always been to play professional hockey,” he said. “I want to keep getting better, so I’ll focus on the little things and see where that takes me.”

Before No. 32 draws a paycheck for stopping pucks, however, there’s a lot left to accomplish at Old Nassau.

“We want to get a banner in Hobey Baker Rink, and hopefully we’ll win both the Ivy League and the ECAC,” said Kalemba. “We have a lot of talent and heart, and we have a good shot.”

The Tigers came up just short in their quest for the regular-season conference crown, falling by a 4-3 count at Clarkson on Feb. 29, but still gained a first-round bye. Princeton will now look to advance to the ECAC championships in Albany and secure an automatic NCAA tournament berth for the first time in a decade.

If so, there’ll be a local boy leading the way.