Princeton, St. Lawrence meet while in a state of flux

The countdown is on: T-minus three weeks until the playoffs, and very little is settled. We know Union can’t finish last, Rensselaer can’t finish first, and … well, that’s it. Everything else is still — at least, mathematically — up for grabs.

Today we check in with a couple teams in transition: Princeton and St. Lawrence. The clubs are tied for ninth in the standings, and hope to break the gridlock on Saturday in Canton. The matchup carries additional significance for many at SLU as well as Tigers coach Bob Prier, who was Joe Marsh’s top assistant for the last decade and a half prior to filling Guy Gadowsky’s position in the Garden State.

“It’s exciting. I have a lot of great friends in the North Country that I’m really looking forward to running into,” Prier said. “It’s different, it’s an exciting trip, I was there for 13 or 14 years of my life, so I have a lot of great ties and a lot of great relationships in Canton, N.Y.”

Tigers trending upward as playoffs loom

Princeton may not be at the top of the table, but its season hasn’t been all that discouraging. The injury bug has done a number on Prier’s roster of late, but the results haven’t reflected a team in a tailspin. At 7-10-6 (5-8-3 in ECAC Hockey play), the abundance of ties indicates a competitive team that has struggled to get over the hump and make winning a habit instead of a hope. Prier hopes that a current four-game unbeaten run (2-0-2) is the start of that transition.

“I’ve been impressed with the guys and their resilience,” he said. “They’ve been through an awful lot this year, as far as some tough travel schedule and quite a few injuries to deal with. I think they’ve done a great job. … This is a real fun group to work with, and a really hard-working and resilient group.

“We were dealing with seven injuries going into the Dartmouth game on Friday,” he said. “Fortunately, all of our defensemen are healthy but we only had three-plus-one up front, so we dressed all seven defensemen. For a 26-man roster to have seven guys injured — six to the point where they can’t compete, and one playing a little banged up — you know, it is what it is, it happens everywhere and everyone’s dealing with it. We’re getting healthier, I think we might have one other guy back [this weekend], so that’s promising.

“We lost [freshman forward] Aaron Kesselman for the year. We’ve likely lost [freshman defenseman] Kevin Mills for the year. Likely [junior forward] Jimmy Kerr for the year. [Senior forward] Brodie Zuk will be day-to-day now, but we’re anywhere from two to six weeks with him. [Junior forward] Will MacDonald’s day-to-day, so … yeah. There are some veterans there, and there were some young guys who were really getting it going and were starting to play like veterans. Poor Aaron Kesselman, he had the game of his career against Colgate getting a two-and-one, and he did it on a torn ACL. … He’ll be back in October. There are a couple guys with concussions. … Once they even get cleared to bike, they have to take that two-week transition phase, so it’s going to be tight for some of these guys even if they do get healthy right away.”

One of the Tigers’ greatest assets is its youth: Two sophomores (Andrew Calof and Jack Berger) lead the team in scoring, followed by a pair of juniors (Michael Sdao and Rob Kleebaum). Goalies Sean Bonar (sophomore) and Mike Condon (junior) have a few years ahead of them at Hobey Baker Rink. Heck, the squad has only three seniors: forwards Zuk and Marc Hagel, and blueliner Derrick Pallis.

“[Sdao] is just one heck of a hockey player all around,” Prier said. “He’s always trying to get better, he’s a very physical player. He’s one of those players where the opposition knows who he is prior to going into the game. He’s regarded as — if not the — then one of the toughest players to play against in the league, I would assume. He’s got great instincts on how to get open, and how to get shot lanes. He’s very mobile for a man of his size, which allows him to get a ton of shots through, and when gets a hold of one, it’s a missile.”

On Berger, Prier said: “He’s gotten a lot of points this year. He’s been very patient at hanging around the front of the net. He’s very good at using his size and protecting the puck, screening the opposing goalie, and getting a lot of those rebounds that are lying around. He’s been rewarded for playing in those really difficult parts of the ice.”

And Calof “is a great complement to Jack Berger. He’s so precise in his playmaking ability and deception, so good at buying himself time and space to make those plays and to put passes right where guys are looking for them. He’s really elevated his game since Christmas. You forget that he’s a sophomore when you’re watching him, what you expect out of him, and what you get out of him. Day in and day out, you just catch yourself, and say, ‘Shoot, he’s only in his second year here.’ But he’s that good. When he gets the puck on his stick, certainly everyone on our bench thinks, ‘OK, something’s gonna happen,’ and I think the consensus is that everyone on the other bench says, ‘Uh oh, something’s gonna happen!’ He’s got that kind of impact on a game, especially now that he’s proven that he can make things happen out there regularly.”

Despite the rash of injuries — an all-too-familiar scenario for Princeton fans — Calof and the Tigers are in a good position to make something happen over the next month.

Saints ditch skid in advance of home stand

Unlike Princeton, St. Lawrence wasn’t looking so hot last week. The Saints hadn’t scored in seven periods, falling by a 10-0 aggregate at Rensselaer (4-0) and Union (6-0) the weekend prior and stumbling under the weight of three weeks without a win (0-5-1).

It was a tough time in Canton, so associate head coach Mike Hurlbut — the acting head coach in the yearlong absence of Joe Marsh — decided to strip away the chaff of frustration and complication and get the Saints back to basics.

“We had a frustrating stretch there, and the focus of our practice last week was to try to get guys to decrease their frustration level and increase the energy level,” Hurlbut said. “We had a good week of practice, we simplified things a little bit and tried to stress the keep-it-simple principle with the guys, and it paid off for us.”

The tactic worked, and SLU eased up on its asphyxiated sticks enough to upset Yale 4-3 in overtime in New Haven, despite blowing a 3-1 third-period lead. The mojo didn’t seem to last long, as Brown scored three times during Sean Logue’s first-period major for contact to the head on Saturday … but the Saints battled back with three second-stanza strikes and put Bruno on the mat with two more in the third.

The Saints are now firmly in the hunt for a first-round home series, but Hurlbut and assistant coaches Greg Carvel and Mike Elberty first have a conundrum to work out with their team.

“The guys understand that it really is an advantage to play at home, and we just have to play good, simple road hockey at home somehow,” Hurlbut said.

The club is healthy — “We just lost Jordan Dewey to a broken arm at Brown, but other than that we’ve got as full a roster as we’ve had all season long,” said the acting head coach — but a healthy attitude will be just as critical down the stretch as a healthy roster.

“Hockey’s a pretty simple game, and some of these guys try to make it a complicated one at times,” Hurlbut said. “I wish there was a magic pill I could give them to make them see that all the time, but there was nothing Earth-shattering there last week, it was just keeping it simple, work hard and have fun with it.

“There’s a lot worse things that these guys could be doing at their age, that’s for sure.”

Crimson can’t crack Millan, BU in Beanpot opener

It would be easy to mock Harvard for yet another year of early evening hockey in the Beanpot. After all, the Crimson have played for the championship only thrice since last winning it in 1993: They skated in the title tilt in ’94, ’98 and ’08. (Northeastern has played the second night’s second game six times since then.)

But that would be incorrect. This time, at least. I’ve railed against the Crimson’s February frailty in years past, but Monday’s opening-game 3-1 loss to Boston University was a bit of a different animal. The Cambridge boys actually had some fight in ’em this time, and had the top-ranked Terriers on the run for significant stretches of the game.

Harvard outshot BU 30-25 and forced the Comm. Ave. canines into more penalties than the Crimson took (5-4). The difference was in net, where Kieran Millan denied the Crimson at every turn, whereas Harvard starter Steve Michalek couldn’t keep up with his scarlet-clad counterpart. That’s not an entirely unexpected scenario, given Michalek’s freshman status compared to Millan’s four years of experience (not to mention that national title back in ’08-09).

This was the first time in a number of years that Harvard rolled into the Beanpot on anything even remotely resembling a hot streak, and the Crimson would be well-served to put Monday’s game behind them quickly in advance of Rensselaer on Friday and Northeastern on Monday.

The game against the Huskies won’t be televised, won’t be well-attended, and it’s unlikely that anyone will remember anything about it five years from now. But it is setting up to be a pivotal match late in the young Crimson’s campaign, positioned to deliver a heavy dose of energy — positive or negative — to Harvard’s home-stretch inertia.

Can we give Smith his Hobey yet?

Nate and I will not quit pumping Austin Smith’s tires (to borrow what is apparently a quaint Canadian colloquialism) in the quest for a Hobey Baker Award for the Colgate senior.

Smith is second in the nation in points (in both raw numbers and points per game) with 45 (1.61). He is nine goals ahead of his nearest competitor (Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad) for the national scoring race (30-21, respectively).

He is tied for 95th in the country in assists-per-game (15 total, .54 per game), which — to me, at least — indicates that he is almost certainly not getting any undeserved stat inflation from friendly scorekeepers. (I touched on this issue in last week’s weekend wrap-up. That’s not to say that Colgate isn’t working hard to credit him for every point he has earned … that wouldn’t be fair, either. I’m just saying that he’s probably not the beneficiary of any “phantom assists.”) Smith isn’t cashing in on power-play points the way some PP specialists do, either: He has only five power-play goals this year.

But he leads Division I in short-handed goals (six) and is tied for fourth in game-winning goals (five). He has been held off the score sheet three times all year — most recently at Union on Friday — but he bounced back on Saturday with four goals at RPI, his ninth multi-goal game of the year.

Smith for Hobey. There’s nothing more to say.