Back in December, Princeton was skating to a 4-2 win over Yale, completing a sweep at Brown and Yale for the first time since 2007-08. But when the teams met again in February, the Tigers were on the wrong side of a 6-0 loss.
The difference was the team defense.
Getting pinned in their own zone, as happened in the loss to Yale, was reminiscent of the defensive issues Princeton had last year. But that hasn’t been as much of an issue for the Tigers this year, who’ve played much better on the defensive side.
“Our Achilles heel for a year and a half has been getting the puck and turning it over right away,” Princeton coach Ron Fogarty said. “And so now the positioning and puck protection’s a lot better in the defensive zone to eliminate that continuous time.
“And that’s where we were poor against Yale, we gave a lot of the pucks away for second and third opportunities once we established possession.”
The defensive improvements can mostly be seen on the ice. Players aren’t getting out of position and making as many mistakes, and the Tigers don’t get trapped in their zone as much.
But the improvement can be seen on the scoresheet, as the Tigers allow 3.21 goals per game. While the average is still low at 47th in the country, it’s a slight improvement from last season’s average of allowing 3.30 goals per game.
A key to Princeton’s solidified defensive play comes from not getting beaten twice, something Fogarty has emphasized this year.
“[It’s] learning that it’s okay to get beat at certain points,” co-captain Kyle Rankin said. “You’re going to get beat. It’s just making sure you don’t get beat twice. If your man beats you, we have systems in place to make sure that we can recover.
“I think guys have shown a lot more poise in the D zone, [it’s] a lot less frantic. So it’s definitely been good to know that guys understand that when something happens we can avoid it without it being a complete disaster.”
The defensive improvement has also helped the Tigers play in more close games this year, including 14 one-goal losses – excluding empty net goals. Princeton finished with five wins, the most since 2012-13. And while the Tigers finished last in the ECAC, they netted nine league points – also the most since 2012-13.
Having Colton Phinney in net has been helpful. The netminder as a .923 save percentage and has 971 saves this year, a new Princeton single-season record. The challenge for the Tiger defense is to eliminate second and third opponent chances on Phinney.
“I think it’s more [that] the second year guys understand the structure,” co-captain Mike Ambrosia said. “You kind of worry about yourself and where you should be. You know if you make one mistake that there’s going to be a guy behind you to bail you out. Then obviously having Colton back there is great for our confidence.
“We just want to minimize the mistakes and try not to compile the mistakes, because [once we do] we get running around then it’s tough for everybody.”