Princeton’s championship season cut impossibly short

Princeton women's hockey forward Sarah Fillier skates with the puck at the blue line. (Shelley Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

Princeton captain Sarah Fillier was named the ECAC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player last weekend. (Shelley Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

The last time the Princeton women’s hockey team beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country was on February 9, 2018. It was head coach Cara Morey’s first year at the helm of the program. They had a record of 10-11-4 and were fighting to get above .500 on the season. The Tigers had 14 skaters that night.

A line made up of a sophomore and two freshmen scored both goals as unranked Princeton upset top-ranked Clarkson, 2-0, at Hobey Baker Rink.

In the two seasons since then, the Tigers have put together back-to-back program-best campaigns. Last season, they put together the longest unbeaten streak in program history and set a new record for single-season wins. This year, they broke their own wins record again. They’ve consistently ranked in the top-10 in the nation and were crowned Ivy League champions in 2019 after going undefeated in league play. That sophomore from 2018, Carly Bullock, is now a 30-goal-scoring senior.

It’s been an incredible rise for Princeton. By the end of the regular season this year, though, there were some very notable boxes left to check off: win an ECAC championship. Get to a Frozen Four. Win a national championship. Despite being in contention for a title all year long, the Tigers would get the chance to do only one of those things this year.

This is a hockey story, the kind you might read at the end of every season. It’s about a team figuring out what it takes to go all the way. It’s about winning a championship, even though it doesn’t end with one. Like so many other sports stories this spring, this one won’t end with a win or a loss at all.

One of the first things that strikes you about Princeton’s squad is how loose they always seem to be, regardless of where they are in the game or what just happened on the last play.

“If you watch our games, we dance on the bench, and we’re singing, and we’re definitely not uptight,” sophomore co-captain Sarah Fillier said.

Princeton finished second in this year’s ECAC Tournament standings and drew Quinnipiac for their best-of-three quarterfinal series. In game one, the Tigers’ offense exploded early and often, catching the Bobcats off guard. They jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in the first period and while the rest of the game was decidedly closer, they skated away with a 5-1 game one victory.

The next two days told a different story. In game two, the Tigers fell 3-2 in overtime, forcing a game three. That third game presented more than its fair share of adversity for the team to overcome. First, senior defender Sylvie Wallin left the game in the second period with a leg injury. It was still scoreless at that point, but Princeton built up a 2-0 lead and held it until the game’s final minutes, when Quinnipiac came storming back to tie it.

That forced overtime for the second game in a row, with the Tigers feeling a little more of the pressure as the high seed. Instead of getting wound up, though, they kept it loose and it ended up paying off, with Fillier scoring the winning goal off of a rebound in double overtime.

“The thing is, and we all talk about it now, is we never thought we were going to lose. We always knew we were going to win. And we were going to do the right things and we knew we were prepared,” Fillier said. “Just having that confidence to build our team around that weekend and to face that second-game OT loss and come back the next day and put together a win, I think it just created such a great dynamic for our culture.”

The Tigers’ goaltending was crucial in that series and would prove to be a deciding factor as the tournament went on. Princeton has been faced with a rare predicament all season long where they have two very capable starting goaltenders on their roster, senior Stephanie Neatby and junior Rachel McQuigge. Neatby started the first two games, but Morey elected to go with McQuigge in game three because she was fresh. It paid off in a big way with the double-overtime win.

Even with those two battling in net all season long, they’ve been able to strike a really good dynamic as a goaltending group, which has been especially helpful to Princeton this time of year.

“It hasn’t been the easiest road because none of us have been in this situation with two starting goalies. None of us,” Morey said. “It was bumpy at times. But right now, it’s like they figured it out. And I love watching them. They have their little weird, jumpy hug thing right before we start [every game] and they are at a place right now in the season where they just want whoever’s playing to kill it.”

You can’t bring up Princeton’s goaltending without mentioning sophomore Cassie Reale, either. She might’ve been designated a backup for much of the season, but she’s so, so integral to keeping things light and upbeat for the Tigers.

“We always talk about bench presence and being very supportive, and always cheering for anything—a blocked shot, a shot on net, a tip, anything—and just getting the bench so pumped up,” said sophomore defender Mariah Keopple. “Cassie’s great with that. If Neatby’s saving a puck and there’s a group of people that didn’t cheer, she’s like, ‘If she stops the puck, we cheer.’ She’s just great for motivating us.”

Princeton captain and defender Claire Thompson handles the puck in a game against Syracuse during the 2019-20 season.

Princeton captain and defender Claire Thompson was named to the ECAC All-Tournament Team after her efforts in anchoring the Tigers’ five-player blue line. (Shelley Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

Princeton drew Clarkson in the ECAC semifinals, and had a few obstacles to overcome in that game as well. For starters, they’d be facing Marie-Pier Coulombe in net, who came into the game with a .953 save percentage. They would also be without Wallin again on defense, leaving them with just five defenders and two veteran players—Keopple and senior Claire Thompson. Their other three defenders, Kate Monihan, Solveig Neunzert, and Stef Wallace, are all first-years.

“Losing Sylvie obviously was huge; she’s a big personality in our D corps, which made it that much better on the bench,” Keopple said. “One of the big things that we were talking about was just communication, not even just on the ice, but between watching each other on the ice and what we’re seeing, and helping each other with things that we might not have seen right away.”

The game plan went about as smoothly as any team could ask. Neunzert scored the game’s first goal, and Princeton then exploded for a three-goal second period. The line of Shannon Griffin, Annie MacDonald, and Kayla Fillier scored on a nice passing play. Sarah Fillier ripped a puck through traffic in front, and Monihan scored from the point a few minutes later for her first career goal.

“It’s always exciting when we get some secondary scoring and we get some freshmen in the mix too, and especially Kate scoring her first goal, I think it just fires everyone up,” Sarah Fillier said. “There was a great play with Annie, Kayla, and Shannon, a nice tic-tac-toe play. When we put together those pretty goals, I think it just gets everyone going.”

“I know that it’s been a huge thing for the freshmen, working on getting their shots through and not getting them blocked,” Keopple said. “I honestly think it was a major confidence booster, especially with Kate getting her first goal. And when we get shots through, we’re always screaming on the bench for each other and I think that helps a lot from the support from the bench.”

With that 5-1 victory over Clarkson, the Tigers advanced to their first-ever ECAC championship game against No. 1-ranked Cornell. They had already set the standard once again for the program, and they now had another chance to do something that no Princeton team had ever done before.

“I don’t think we talked about sort of making history through the week; I think we just wanted to be ourselves. All year, we did what worked,” Fillier said. “I remember Claire saying something in the locker room like, ‘Hey, this is the first time in the finals, we already made history, why not go out and win this one?’ I think that was the only time we really mentioned making history. Which is good, because we kind of just focused on being ourselves and having fun.”

Within the first three minutes of the title game, though, the Tigers found themselves in an early hole. They spent the first 1:26 of the game pinned in their own zone before giving up a goal to Kristin O’Neill. Gillis Frechette added another 1:23 later. Just like that, Princeton was staring down a 2-0 deficit while facing off against one of the nation’s best blue lines and a goaltender who gave up less than a goal per game all year.

Despite all of that, the Tigers did not hang their heads. They dug back in for more.

“I do think that Quinnipiac series gave our players that grit and showed them what they were capable of,” Morey said. “I think they knew after going through the Quinnipiac series that hockey is a long game. There was still 57 minutes of hockey left. So I think that’s what they learned, is that the games are long and they can change in a minute.”

As was the case all playoffs long for the Tigers, their bench came up big in those first few minutes and helped turned the tide in their favor.

“I think it was the first or second TV timeout of the game, we were down 2-0, and I remember just sitting there and Cassie was screaming and we’re all like, ‘What is going on?'” Fillier said.  “I remember sitting there and being like, ‘We’re down 2-0, might as well come back here. Can’t get any worse, honestly. We have nothing to lose.’ And I remember that timeout was where everything sort of just changed.”

Princeton kept it a two-goal game going into the second period. Less than four minutes into that frame, Maggie Connors forced a turnover and fed a puck to Sarah Fillier in the crease, which she buried. 2-1.

“Their mentality started to pick up, the energy picked up, and they started having fun with it. And then all of a sudden, they pop one in,” Morey said. “And as soon as the first one went in, we knew we had a chance.”

Before the end of that period, Princeton’s top players got another one past Lindsay Browning to even the score. Carly Bullock jumped on a loose puck after a turnover and pushed a harmless-looking backhand shot towards the net. It beat Browning to tie up the game.

“It was amazing this weekend, because going out into the third period, our girls were dancing with the Cornell band on the bench,” Morey said. “They weren’t nervous. They weren’t stressed and yelling at each other. They were dancing and jumping and cheering, so I kind of felt like we might really win this.”

The teams played to a scoreless third period, meaning the ECAC championship would be decided in overtime. By this point, though, Princeton was becoming more and more sure that they could pull off the upset and win it all.

“It was insane to me because even in the third, there was like five minutes left and it felt like we were winning,” Fillier said. “We never had a moment, after we tied and got back to 2-2, we never had a moment like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re tied,’ or, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to lose.’ It was always like, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this game.'”

Once overtime got under way, Princeton gained control of the puck and forced Browning to paddle the puck out of play. Sharon Frankel won the ensuing faceoff right to Shannon Griffin. She passed it over to Keopple at the far point, who took her shot. It deflected off traffic on its way to the net, popped way over Browning, and crossed the line behind her. 3-2.

“To be completely honest, I didn’t see it go into the net,” Keopple said. “I couldn’t see the puck after I saw it go up. I was like, ‘It’s got to be tipped off of something, someone.’ And then I just looked and was staring at the ref for him to make the signal, but I was just in shock. I just stood there, put my arms up and I was like, ‘We just won.'”

Keopple’s goal wasn’t perfect by any stretch. It didn’t go in clean; it got knocked around a bit on the way to the net. Maybe that’s just as fitting, though, for a team that had learned not to waver, to push through the noise and take the good with the bad and dive towards that line themselves.

On the bench, Morey was a little hesitant to even celebrate at first.

“Everybody’s worried about me because I didn’t smile. I didn’t cheer,” she said. “Well, my first instinct was they’re going to review it, which they did. And our team’s in the dog pile and I’m like, ‘Oh, God, they’re going to review it.’ And they did. And then they came out and said it was a goal and I think I was just in shock still.

“It took until the next day for me to really go, ‘Oh, my God, that was awesome. We just won that.'”

The Princeton women's hockey team gathers around the ECAC championship trophy at center ice for a celebratory photo, after winning the 2020 ECAC Tournament.

The Princeton Tigers celebrate their 2020 ECAC Tournament title after upsetting No. 1 Cornell. (Cornell Athletics)

As an Ivy League team, there’s a storied tradition at Princeton to carry and uphold. But under Morey, the Tigers have achieved an unprecedented level of success beyond anything done in the past. That wasn’t something that was ever a guarantee for this group. No player on the Tigers’ current roster committed to the team knowing that someone would hand them a trophy at the end of the year.

They didn’t come in knowing the program would move forward; they moved it forward themselves.

“I knew when I was trying to decide where to go, I wanted to go to a program where it felt like home. And it was an environment where I can get better and be supported, and that’s the environment that Cara provides here,” Fillier said. “I think it’s special when you join a program and have the opportunity to be a big part of it and make history, rather than just signing on to a team where you get a bid every year, you win a championship every year, and it’s not as special. I think it makes it a lot more special, when you talk to anyone in the room, how hard we’ve worked all year to get to this point.”

Following their ECAC title win, Princeton earned a bid into the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year. The Tigers were slated to head to Boston to play Northeastern in the first round, and there was a feeling throughout the locker room that the team wasn’t done yet.

“At this point, we all think no one can actually stop us and we’re going to go all the way, and that’s the team mentality that you want to have,” Keopple said. “We’ve always had a good locker room and team mentality and bonding and stuff like that, but it’s taken a complete turn in the past few weeks. And I think it’s the confidence in our team. Everyone has confidence in every single person on the bench. Everyone has confidence in those five people and the goalie that’s in.”

“I seriously say this in all honesty, I’ve never been a part of a team with culture like this, that we’ve had in the last two weeks,” Fillier said. “After this weekend, I don’t think anyone can stop us. And I think everyone on our team believes that.”

On Wednesday, after finishing up a morning practice and before heading off to take a midterm, that belief from Fillier is palpable.

“We have the mentality of ‘we’re not done yet,'” she says. “There’s a lot of belief in this room, and it’s so exciting. I can’t wait to go play this weekend.”

“It feels like a year has passed in just three days. These have been the longest days of my life,” Morey says.

It’s Saturday morning, a few hours before puck drop was scheduled for Princeton’s quarterfinal game. But there is no game today, for Princeton or for anyone.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world, and more and more COVID-19 cases are recorded globally, practically every sports organization has been forced to reckon with it. The first domino that fell in women’s hockey was actually the remaining IIHF World Championships, including the top division tournament scheduled to be held in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia.

Fillier and Thompson were both set to make their World Championship debuts for Team Canada at that tournament. Last Saturday, before Princeton’s ECAC semifinal game against Clarkson, the tournament was called off completely. It was gutting for both players, but they pushed it towards the backs of their minds going into that game, and treated it as even more of a reason to lay everything on the line then. There wouldn’t be any other games after Princeton’s season ended.

But after the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced last Sunday, everything seemed to be a go for their game against Northeastern the following weekend. Things changed rapidly on Wednesday. First, the Ivy League announced that all athletic events would be held without fans, a decision that affected Cornell’s own NCAA quarterfinal against Mercyhurst. By the end of that day, it was decided that all NCAA championship events would be held with a limited audience (families and essential personnel only).

The Ivy League also canceled spring sports, but left it up to individual schools to determine what they would do for winter championships. Princeton’s women’s hockey team could compete on Saturday, but they were told they couldn’t come back to campus afterward. Wednesday evening, Princeton University made the decision that all students who were able would need to leave campus by March 19. The school would be moving all classes online.

It was a tough night for a lot of Princeton’s players and their fellow students. Everyone on campus realized at that point that there was a good chance they weren’t coming back this semester. Nobody knew the next time they’d get to see their friends and classmates.

To give the players some much-needed routine, the team decided to leave as scheduled for Northeastern at 2 p.m. Thursday. They practiced at 11 a.m. Even if they won, they were planning on staying in Boston to await the Frozen Four, so for the seniors, they knew it’d be their last practice at Hobey Baker Rink.

“A lot of the seniors were crying as they’re practicing,” Morey said. “And ironically, we had the best practice of our year.”

They found out in the middle of practice that other events were completely canceling, like the ECAC men’s tournament. No decision had been passed down yet from the NCAA on the status of the weekend’s games, so they decided to push their departure time back. They were also hearing about other teams in the tournament—namely Mercyhurst and Ohio State—who were waiting to travel to their own games.

At that point, Morey says it felt like it was inevitable that the NCAA Tournament would be canceled, but there was still no word from the NCAA on what would happen.

“We just sat there in the rink, just sat there with our food, and [the players] are asking, ‘When will we know?'” Morey said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know when we’ll know.’ And that was the hardest part.”

Finally, at 4:16 p.m., the NCAA put out a release on social media stating that all winter and spring championships would be canceled. Princeton’s players, with their bags already packed for Boston, found out on Twitter that their bus wouldn’t be leaving after all. Their season was over.

It was a crushing blow for scores of athletes across the country. But for this team specifically, it meant a season filled with so much promise cut short, before they got the chance to show exactly how they stacked up against the best of the best.

Morey organized a team dinner that night and asked all of her players to be there, instead of going off in separate directions. In the span of just a few hours on Thursday afternoon, Princeton went from turning in their best practice of the year and preparing for another program first, to getting together as a team for likely the very last time.

“We lose our senior banquet. We lose so much. I don’t know if they’re going to have graduation or reunions,” Morey said. “We needed some sort of closure. So we had a makeshift, last-minute sort of dinner. I wouldn’t call it a banquet, but you know, we got a chance to at least speak and recognize our seniors and have them speak. And I have never been around so much crying.”

This team, like many others, will forever be racked by questions like, what if? Or, why not us? Sometimes those questions can be really beautiful in hockey. Sometimes they are asked in the third period of a tie game, when an underdog has just roared back from a two-goal deficit and dares to believe they could win. But sometimes they are asked like this, and we never find out the answers.

In that, Princeton’s players and staff are losing something that is impossible to ever get back. The Tigers could win the next 10 national championships, and still we’ll wonder what this team could have done. The sheer gravity of that is very real. But there’s something to be said for Princeton putting themselves in a position to ask those questions at all. They asked it of themselves, and they set out to find the answers, with only the purest, simplest belief in each other and zero fear of what those answers would yield. The Tigers will unfortunately never reach what they were striving for at the end of this season, but it would be hard to argue they didn’t reach the pinnacle of what it means to be a team.

And, in a strange, crooked, completely unfair way, for how much Princeton’s players are permanently losing, there’s also something to be said for what they’ve gained through each other. It isn’t something you could ever measure in a box score, or lift over your head after the end of a long and trying season. But it’s the point, anyway.

“This is what I talked to the players about. I said, ‘I know that this is so painful right now. But my heart is full on another level because I can see how much you love Princeton, how much you love each other,'” Morey said. “You know, you have to be so grateful that you’ve made relationships and connections that are this close that it affects you this much to leave them. That’s special.

“While I hate seeing them in pain, the flip side of it is that I feel like my goal as a coach is to always have them love each other and care about the program and have pride in it. And to see the devastation, well, that obviously was accomplished.”

One thought on “Princeton’s championship season cut impossibly short

  1. Pingback: The Wraparound: March 20 – The Ice Garden – Full Sports

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