Becker, Tigers Cap Turnaround with ECAC Title
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. Max Becker darted out to the point just as Clarkson’s Terrance Amorosa collected the puck. A shade more than 8 seconds remained when Becker made the move.
His Princeton team, the No. 7 seed in the ECAC tournament, was mere seconds from its first ECAC championship in 10 years, its first NCAA tournament appearance in nine. But those 8 seconds were all that mattered as Becker skated out to pester Amorosa. The defenseman pivoted quickly to his left and wristed the puck toward the scrum in front of Princeton goaltender Ryan Ferland.
Becker wasn’t sure quite what happened. He didn’t know if he’d deflected it or one of his teammates or a Clarkson player. It didn’t matter really.
The game, now, was tied. 1-1. The third-seeded Golden Knights had helped their own ECAC championship hopes linger for the time being. Herb Brooks Arena popped when Amorosa’s shot — deflected by Nico Sturm — shook the net. The green-and-goal-clad crowd of 5,950 shook the place, celebrating the sudden resuscitation of their team’s title hopes.
Becker slowed as the roar continued. He circled the zone and drifted back toward the Princeton bench. Overtime was inevitable. Just 6.8 ticks remained in regulation. The feeling had shifted, of course. Clarkson had life.
The frustration lasted only moments, though, for Becker and his teammates. Seeing their lead slip was disappointing. But it was nothing, really, compared to everything Becker, his classmates and the Princeton program had been through in the last four years.
“We’ve failed at times, and we’ve definitely had quite a few experiences that didn’t work as we planned,” Becker said. “But we learned through those. It’s been a learning process, but that’s how you become great at anything. You have to learn and learn fast from those failures.”
The failure, the difficult times, Becker mentioned began when he arrived in New Jersey in 2014. The season before, the Tigers won just six games, which led to the end of Bob Prier’s failed tenure with the Tigers. In came Ron Fogarty, a confident young coach, fresh off creating a Division III program at Adrian College, a tiny afterthought of a college in southeast Michigan. He took the Princeton job with a clear plan and the distinct goal of slowly building the program into competitor in the resurgent ECAC.
The Tigers won just four games in 2014-15. They managed just five wins the following year.
In recent seasons, a number of college hockey programs have experienced rebirths under young coaches. Only a few of those rebuilds yielded the instant results fans crave. It was always going to take some time at Princeton — the Ivy League institution can’t recruit just anyone.
The margins of defeat dwindled in Year 2. The talent gap between Princeton and most teams it faced was still significant. A few other deficits started to fade, however. The culture shift every new coach mentions started to materialize.
The infusion of talented players, such as Max Verroneau and Ryan Kuffner — a dynamic creator-and-finisher pair from Ottawa — and Josh Teves — a shifty, creative defenseman — among others gave the Tigers some weapons. And it clicked in Year 3. Last season, the Tigers, winners of 15 games in their previous three seasons, won 15 games and a playoff series before Union ended their year in the ECAC quarterfinals.
No one is quite sure when it happened. But something changed.
“The philosophy we brought to Princeton was expect to win, don’t hope to win,” Fogarty said.
A 15-win season didn’t make the Tigers presumptive ECAC favorites heading into the 2017-18 season. It gave the players confidence, though. They knew the same old Princeton was a memory.
“We’ve had a belief, and it comes from Ron all the way through the entire program that we’re going to get here and we’re going to win a championship,” Teves said. “From Day 1, obviously with some of the tough times we had until tonight, that belief has never wavered. It’s a testament to Ron and the rest of the coaches we have that we haven’t wavered. We haven’t given up when we faced adversity. We’ve continued to improve and get better, and the results speak for themselves.”
When the Princeton players left following the first semester, their record stood at 6-7-1. A loss to Arizona State capped an uneven first half. One that included resounding wins and bad losses all the same. The second half began with a pair of ties with one of the nation’s best teams in St. Cloud State. However, three consecutive ECAC losses to Cornell (7-1), Colgate (4-0), and Harvard (3-1) dropped the Tigers to 6-10-3. Their promising season was suddenly fading.
“We had a players only meeting,” Becker, a captain, said. “I said ‘guys, we’re a good hockey team. We have a chance to make this year pretty special.’ We knew we had a few more things to shore up, some areas to improve. But it all went back to how we started improving the first place. We just stuck to the process. That was the moment when we all realized we really could do something. Everyone was 100 percent committed.”
Going winless in five games to open the second half could’ve sent any number of teams the wrong way, going through the motions until another disappointing season mercifully ended.
“When you have two lopsided losing seasons, it’s very easy to throw the plan away and change it and start over,” Fogarty said. “But we didn’t do that. We believed in our plan … When things don’t work, there’s a lot of negativity and outside noise. … We stuck with it.”
The Tigers have lost just twice since. They finished the regular season on a 7-2-1 run and finished three points back of a bye in the ECAC tournament. The regular season ended with a 4-3 win over St. Lawrence.
With the postseason coming, Fogarty sent a message to his team. There were other favorites in the league. Cornell and Clarkson were both enjoying their best seasons in years. Defending league champion Harvard was rounding into form. No one was looking at the seventh-seeded Tigers as a realistic threat depsite their second-half success.
“My message to the team after that last game at St. Lawrence was just to look at Max Becker,” he said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. He cares for Princeton hockey. He bleeds orange and black. He’s someone that’s going to be a great player and phenomenal alumnus, but we don’t want that to end. We need to win six more games.”
The Tigers cruised through an opening round series with Brown, outscoring the Bears, 15-3, in two games. A road trip to Union followed. And nothing changed. Princeton earned their first trip to the ECAC semifinals since 2009 with a sweep of the Dutchmen in Schenectady.
“When we got (to Lake Placid), it was kind of a surreal moment,” Becker said. “We realized that we had really built something great here. We had an opportunity to do something great throughout the weekend. By the time the games came around, it was kind of a ‘why not us’ thing.”
So after overturning a 1-0 deficit against Cornell in Friday’s semifinal to win, 4-1, the Tigers met Clarkson for the ECAC championship game Saturday night.
And there was Max Becker. About 8 seconds away from celebrating an ECAC championship and an NCAA tournament berth and capping off a remarkable four-year turnaround for a program he’s grown to love.
Sturm’s redirection changed all of that.
It didn’t change Princeton, though.
“Our guys went into the third period ready to win no matter how it had to happen,” Fogarty said. “We had the lead. Maybe we’d get a break and take advantage. Maybe we’d have to go into overtime. No matter what we knew were playing good 5-on-5 hockey. … We kept playing hard, but it’s tough when you give up a goal that late. We had to go in and motivate the guys back up. If you’d told us in January, we were going to be in overtime for our league championship, everyone would’ve taken it. We went around the room and started naming who would score the game-winner.”
No one said Max Becker’s name.
It’s understandable in a way. He entered the night with just three goals on the season. Other players, Verroneau, Kuffner, Eric Robinson, do most of Princeton’s scoring.
But it was Becker just two-and-a-half minutes into overtime that found the puck, a championship and a perfect bit of punctuation to Princeton’s turnaround on his stick.
“(Jeremy) Germain made a great play,” Becker said. “He was going around the net. He just kind of left it off for me. I just went to the net.”
Becker jabbed once as Clarkson goaltender Jake Kielly sprawled to his right. His second whack kicked the puck up just high enough to beat Kielly.
Princeton won the ECAC tournament Saturday night. Becker’s goal gave the Tigers a 2-1 win and their first conference championship since 2008. The win sends the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
About 20 minutes prior, Princeton was seconds from an ECAC championship. That first opportunity was wasted. But learning from failures and missteps has defined this program for the last four years.
“The coaching staff and all the guys on the team, we’ve been through a lot these last four years,” Becker said. “We’ve been able to take those experiences and turn them into references.
“We never wavered, even when they scored with 6 seconds left. We came back in the locker room and we said ‘we still got this.”
“We made reference to that with the seniors absolutely,” Fogarty said. “We talked about all the hard work they put in, all the trust and belief we put in. We told them ‘don’t let it pass you by here.'”
Princeton won four games in Max Becker’s freshman year. They scored only 39 goals in 30 games. They won five games the following season. Overcoming a last-minute equalizer in a hostile building to win an ECAC championship in overtime?
That was nothing.