Weekend preview: Playoff race heats up as the saints head to Princeton

The playoff push is on. All teams in the ECAC have played either 16 or 17 games, and five have separated themselves from the pack. The Saints and Union are tied at the top with 25 points, but Union has a game in hand, while Harvard lurks just one point behind. Cornell has 22 points and Quinnipiac is fifth with 21, but it’s a 6-point drop-off to get to 6th place Clarkson. Union will lose it’s game in hand over the Saints this weekend as they take on Harvard and Dartmouth, while SLU heads to Princeton for a lone contest against the Tigers.

This game comes at a good time for the Saints, particularly after the tough loss to Clarkson on Saturday. After this weekend, SLU has two relatively easy games left, against Colgate and Dartmouth, and two difficult, and important games, against Harvard and Cornell. Stashing two points in the bank this weekend against Princeton, along with a bit of luck, will put the Saints in a position to control their own destiny over the last two weeks of the regular season.

Away from home, the Saints have struggled this season, with a 5-6-3 record, but they’ve lost two straight games in enemy territory and the sweep at Lowell and Providence doesn’t help the stats. This is a good chance for the Saints to pick up a road win against a team that is scrappier than their ninth place position indicates.

SLU shut Princeton out when the Tigers came to Appleton, getting goals from Carson Gicewicz, Gavin Bayreuther, Jacob Pritchard, and Joe Sullivan, along with 29 saves from Kyle Hayton, but this is not the anemic Princeton offense of the past few years. Max Veronneau has 27 points in 22 games for the Tigers, and both Ryan Kuffner and David Hallisey are both at or above a point-per-game scoring pace.

Jackson Cressey has been producing as well, and Josh Teves provides solid depth scoring from the blue-line. In total, 17 skaters have recorded a goal for Princeton on the season, and all but one skater has recorded a point. Their power play is effective, at 21.2 percent, and as a team, they score roughly 3 goals per game.

In other words, Princeton’s 9-11-3 record, including a 4-9-3 ECAC mark, isn’t the fault of their offense. The defense has not progressed as well in a year where the program has seen significant improvements. Rather, Princeton continues to struggle to keep the puck out of their own net, allowing 3.57 goals per game.

Princeton’s difficulties are deeper than poor defense. The majority of their struggles have come in conference play. Outside of the ECAC, Princeton has a 5-2-0 record and markedly better statistics. In league play, they allow 3.81 goals per game while only scoring 2.56, a far worse goal margin than overall, which is buoyed by their non-conference stats.

Given that this is an ECAC game, between the first place team, a strong league team, and the ninth place team, one that has struggled mightily in conference play, the Saints certainly enter this game as the favorites. Colton Phinney is one of the most underrated goalies in the ECAC, and though his statistics don’t often show it, he has the ability to steal games.

Though not completely healthy at this point, SLU has better depth than the Tigers, and shouldn’t have much of a problem outskating Princeton. The stats don’t indicate that there is one specific way to beat Princeton (i.e. outshoot them, score first, be leading after the first period), which usually means that the opponent is generally a weak team, incapable of consistently holding leads, but also a team that can come back from deficits, even late in games.

It won’t take perfection from SLU to win this game, but too many turnovers, or a lack of focus, could leave the Saints on the losing end of this one. A smart, well-executed game is all SLU needs to tack on win number 16.