PHS girls get defensive in tie, win

Mahon helps Little Tigers hockey against Mo-Beard, Stuart

By: Justin Feil
   The Princeton High girls’ ice hockey team knew it would have to take a different approach to games this season.
   "We definitely have to play a defensive orientation," said PHS head coach Matt Becan. "It’s a different style since we lost (leading scorer) Vicki Chen. One of the things we have really focused on instead of letting teams get ahead of us and trying to come back, we decided have to rely on a style of defense. If we make no mistakes and keep the score close, it gives us a chance to win at the end."
   It’s a style that the Little Tigers are finding demanding, particularly the defensemen. They are feeling the pressure of playing man-to-man in the defensive zone, but they are also standing up under the pressure.
   "It’s a big transition for a lot of the girls," said Cami Mahon, a junior defensemen. "I’ve never done it before. What’s nerve-wracking is, if a goal is scored, it’s clear whose fault it was. You can get pinned easy with man-to-man. But it’s good because we can understand where the breakdowns occur.
   "It almost pressures you to work harder. Nobody wants to be the person that it was their fault."
   So far, Mahon has been flawless after moving from the forward position she occupied through much of her first two years with the PHS girls’ team to one of the three key defensemen. She has not surrendered a goal to anyone she has covered.
   "Not yet," she said. "I’m sure I will."
   Mahon and the Little Tigers didn’t allow a goal in a 0-0 tie Wednesday with Morristown-Beard, the first-place team in the Women’s Interscholastic Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic. They allowed just 14 shots in the win to show that they had learned a valuable lesson in their toughest loss of the year, a 9-2 defeat at the hands of Portledge nearly a week before.
   "I think at Portledge, we got to practice our man-to-man defense a lot and got to see how our defense has to be positioned," Mahon said. "And we felt how much it (stinks) to lose. We brought that up to Morristown-Beard. Mo-Beard has always been one of our biggest rivals. We’ve never come close to tying them. Without Vicki Chen, we wanted to show what we could do without them. It was nice to see every player step up as best they could.
   "On a personal level for everybody on the team, it was absolutely our hugest game of the year. We do have some big games coming up."
   PHS continued its strong defense with an 8-1 win over Stuart in a non-league game Thursday to improve to 5-2-1 this season. They are 1-1-1 in the WIHLMA. Cami Mahon had a goal and assist in the win while her cousin, forward Dee Dee Mahon, had two goals. Blair Thompson also had a pair of goals, but it has been the defense that has keyed the Little Tigers’ solid start.
   "We pushed Blair and Cami back on defense this year," Becan said. "In years past, they’ve been up at forward. At the end of last season, I started moving them back to strengthen our defensive line. I never kept them on defense until this year. Right now, we ran a three-player rotation against Mo-Beard. We had Cami, (Kristen) Naylor and Blair Thompson that game. We relied a lot on our centers. They pick up an extra man as well. It was a team effort. Everyone has to do a good job. Our wingers have to be on top of their players as well. We have to see every player buy into the system and pick up someone in the defensive zone. I was proud of them for doing that. I don’t think we’ve done that until this game.
   "With Stuart, we wanted to focus on a very sound game. At the end, we were able to rotate our third and fourth line in. The girls were very, very good. They did a good job of keeping the puck outside. They really bought into the system. Just because we were playing a team we could score on, we didn’t want to abandon our defensive zone coverage. Stuart had some scary players. We were able to keep them from getting some good scoring opportunities."
   PHS is hoping it can continue to build on those performances as it hosts Pingry 7 p.m. Thursday at Princeton University’s Baker Rink. On Friday, the Little Tigers will play a WIHLMA game at The Hill School.
   "We want to just prevent good scoring opportunities," Becan said. "We want to keep all shots from the outside, not from the inside or slot. We want to prevent them from setting up the play. We play a system that prevents them from setting up any cycling or passing. The only opportunities Mo-Beard had was skating across the blue line and shooting and going after the rebound. But our girls were good at locking them up."
   In net, Emily Schulte stopped all 14 shots she saw against Mo-Beard. She had three saves against Stuart before being relieved by senior Stacy Weingarten, who stopped nine of 10 shots. Stuart’s Hilary Kinka scored with five seconds left in the game off an assist from Mary Jane Sweetland. Nathalie Verhaegen made 40 saves for the Tartans, who lost to Mo-Beard, 4-0, Saturday.
   "They were coming off a good win," said Stuart head coach Greg Bugge of the Little Tigers. "I think our goalie played phenomenally. She kept us in the game for the longest time. As the game went on, we got a little better each period. It was just a little late. Then losing, 4-0, to Mo-Beard I was proud of my girls. We actually played very well.
   "We’ve got a couple of kids who got hurt. One of our defense broke her back. We lost a couple forwards. One has a concussion. We started out with three lines and four defense. We’re down to two lines and two D. But they’re working very hard. I’m proud of them."
   Both Stuart and PHS are hoping to continue to make their coaches proud. Stuart was scheduled to play Summit on Monday while the Little Tigers get back into league play after the Pingry game. The Little Tigers are hoping that their recent successes show they’re growing more comfortable with a new style and in their new positions.
   "It’s a lot of fun," Mahon said. "I love playing with Kristen and Blair. The position is nice because you can see the entire ice. I like being back there for the high school team because you get to see all the other players. I play forward for my travel team, the Princeton Tiger Lilies. It’s my first year with them."
   Mahon has her best chances to score with the Tigers Lilies team, but she’s fit well into the role of a defenseman for the high school team. Her willingness to move back to the defense, though it takes away from her goal-scoring, has helped the team sustain a high level of success.
   "Cami is an instrumental player for us," Becan said. "She’s been very strong defensively, but we’ve encouraged her to skate the puck when she has a scoring opportunity. One thing I see in Cami and the other defensive players, they’re good at picking when to play offense and when to stay back on defense. You have to have good judgment. If they get stripped, it’s probably going to be an odd-man rush. All our defensemen have done a good job of finding open lanes, skating with the puck when it’s there. They’ve been able to contribute significantly."
   Despite an increased defensive role, Mahon still has four goals and three assists, the fourth best point total for the Little Tigers. She isn’t as focused on scoring goals this season.
   "You have to prevent the other team from scoring before you get to score," she said. "I think that our team is working well with it. We realize that we’re not a team that can go out and completely dominate the ice. At the same time, we can beat teams if we shut them down.
   "If we can keep the momentum from the Mo- Beard game and carry it to the next two games, we’ll have a good chance in the playoffs against some of these harder teams."