Despite losses PDS hockey keeps on winning

Veteran Nelson aids Panther boys’ fifth win

By: Justin Feil
   Keith Nelson contributed greatly in his first year with the Princeton Day School boys’ ice hockey team. As a sophomore, he was fourth on the team in scoring with 15 goals and 17 assists. This season, in his second with the Panthers, he’s being asked to do more and so far he’s delivered.
   "This year is a lot harder," said the junior wing, who leads the team with eight goals and 10 assists. "We lost a lot of kids. Coming back, it was easier knowing the forechecks and backchecks because I was here last year. But the games have been harder."
   The Panthers still have managed to get off to their usual strong start as Nelson and the returning Panthers have led the way in responding to the challenges. Nelson scored two goals and had a pair of assists as PDS improved to 5-2 with a 6-1 win over Holy Ghost Prep of Pennsylvania on Friday.
   "We’re where we want to be," said PDS head coach Chris Barcless. "We have got a lot of young guys that are learning. We have some good defensive leadership. Our four seniors on defense are doing a nice job. Our goals against are low.
   "Up front, the guys that need to score are scoring. Mix that together and get a couple good games out of our goaltenders and we’ve got a pretty good record."
   PDS defeated two top-level teams in their annual trip to Boston to reach the tournament final before they finally lost in their third game in three days. Their only other loss was a 3-2 defeat in overtime two games into the season. They’ve also defeated Pennsylvania schools Germantown Academy and Council Rock as well as New Jersey public power Cranford.
   Things get no easier for the Panthers, who were scheduled to face top Jersey team Bergen Catholic on Monday before heading to Pittsburgh for two games with Shady Side Academy and one against Upper St. Clair. PDS then returns home to face Lawrenceville, Delbarton and Seton Hall Prep.
   "Usually there are some games where we have expectations of winning," Barcless said. "There aren’t any teams like that this year."
   It means that frequently the Panthers are underdogs. It’s a role that Nelson is growing more comfortable with in his second season at PDS.
   "I guess less is expected of you and it’s fun to beat some teams that expect to win," said Nelson, a Manalapan resident. "It makes the games more enjoyable when you’re the underdog and you win.
   "We saw it in Boston a little. We’re this little team from Princeton and then we beat two teams from up there."
   The only way it’s happened is the combination of outstanding defensive play from the experienced portion of PDS’ team along with goal-scoring from the line of Nelson, Denise and Justin Mimmo and steady work from the ever-improving second and third lines.
   "Will lost both his linemates and so did Nelly," Barcless noted. "So it was natural. They have a lot of weight on their shoulders. They play their regular shift, the power play and the penalty kill. But we have seven other forwards who are all doing a phenomenal job. Each group has their own little job and own little role. Most of the scoring comes from Nelly and Will and it’s up to the other lines to keep the teams in check and do their part."
   Being asked to scored the majority of the Panthers’ goals is a tall task, particularly because it’s not their only job.
   "It makes the games feel a lot longer than usual," said Nelson, who also plays club hockey for the New Jersey Rockets Junior B team. "Being on the ice for every situation, and sometimes knowing you have another game in an hour makes you tired."
   Against Holy Ghost Prep, however, the first line accounted for all six goals. Nelson, Denise and Mimmo, a freshman, each had two goals apiece. Nelson and Denise are the top returning scorers from last year’s team.
   "He and Will Denise need to produce for us to be successful and they are," Barcless said. "Last year, Keith played with Luke Popko. This year, he’s playing with Will. He’s a steady, steady player. He’s calm with the puck. You know what you’re going to get with him game in and game out. I can’t remember too many bad games from him.
   "We had some good lines last year. We had Will skating with Ross (Carmichael) and Andy (Latyszonek), which is a nice line, and Luke and Nelly with Dan Bergen. We had two really good lines. He’s picked it up quickly. You could put Nelly with the best or the worst and he’d be able to adjust in one shift."
   In that respect, Nelson fits in a long line of outstanding players that have helped make PDS a consistent power despite numerous yearly defections and graduation losses. He’s learning to thrive under the higher expectations.
   "When you come through," he said, "it’s great. When we don’t, we’ve failed."
   Despite the pressure to lead the Panthers, Nelson doesn’t feel as much pressure to maintain his top-line position as he did last year while skating for the second line. Besides, he understands that more ice time means more opportunities to score and set an example for other Panther players. He’s been able to fill a bigger role as a leader on the ice.
   "Me and Will have been around and playing hockey longer than a lot of them," he said. "We can show how things are done, whether it’s covering men or any little thing like that. We usually lead by example, not really tell them what to do."
   It’s paid off as PDS is off to a 5-2 start as it heads into a merciless portion of its schedule. Nelson and the Panthers are maintaining an underdog attitude, just hoping that they improve with each game and surprise a few teams on their schedule.
   "We wanted to win every game that we had a chance to win," Nelson said. "We knew we were a little short. We want to keep the games close and win by a goal. We don’t want to try to play run and gun hockey."
   "We can beat anybody we play against," Barcless said, "but if we don’t show up, we can lose to anybody. I’m pleased with where we’re at. To have a record above .500 is really good for us."
   Despite heavy graduation and transfer losses, the PDS boys’ ice hockey team is far exceeding the conservative expectations it had coming into the season. That 5-2 mark is due in part to the play of Keith Nelson, who’s raised his play above any expectations in his second year with the Panthers.