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Tigers edged out by Crimson in crucial loss

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A postseason bid will have to be at-large for the No. 14 Tigers (7-5 overall, 2-3 Ivy League) following a crushing 9-8 loss at No. 20 Harvard (8-5 overall, 4-1). In what was effectively a must-win game, Princeton dropped yet another close one which will most likely leave the Tigers out of the tournament-qualifying top-four. A win next week over No. 12 Cornell could still yield a non-automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but it’s unclear how likely this scenario is.

The first goal came from a Princeton player. But after junior midfielder Kip Orban’s first minute strike, the contest was all Crimson. A 7-0 run by Harvard lasted from the 11:57 mark in the first quarter to the 2:52 mark in the second. A strong rally came from the visitors in the second half, resulting in a 6-2 score in the final two frames. But the leading home team was able to ride their prohibitive advantage out and, for the most part, limit the explosive offense of Princeton.

Even while the Tigers’ slow start was crippling, the contest became incredibly close in a few possessions.

There is a crushing pain in not living up to expectations, a pain made sharper by such slim margins of defeat. Before this season, the Tigers were hailed as one of the country’s top contenders. Offensive firepower was the storyline. Folded into that narrative was the presumed monarchy of senior midfielder and co-captain Tom Schreiber. But these notions were nothing beyond a series of educated guesses. Effectively, all of them missed the mark.

Likewise, the Princeton men have missed the mark. All three in-conference losses were single goal results. Large negative gaps in scoring indicate a team has insufficient potential. A pattern of tight losses denotes a team for whom things just have not gone right.

Junior faceoff specialist Justin Murphy was the presumptive ace at the X. His just-above-50-percent winning ways in 2013 have not carried over into 2014. Forces beyond Murphy’s control held him back from play, with a head injury sidelining him for the middle chunk of the season.

Faceoffs grant possession. Possession grants both goals and, sometimes just as valuably, an opportunity to control the pace of the game.

On Saturday, Princeton was outfaced 13 out of 22 opportunities, giving Harvard a solid leg up. A dozen turnovers from the Crimson certainly did not help the winning side, but Princeton was not able to muster much offense while the opposing attack was bearing down on them. Only three shots came for the visitors in the second quarter; two of them went wide.

As it appears to have gone all season, the final minutes would not break in the Tigers’ favor. Two shots, potential equalizers, from Schreiber in the final four minutes of play ended up hitting off the opposing goal post. The last effort came with 1:18 left to play. Harvard’s Jake Gambitsky managed a save of sophomore midfielder Jake Froccaro’s shot. A successful clear by the Crimson ensured they could evade the Princeton defense until the clock showed zeros.

For only the third time in his career, Schreiber was held goalless. In a week following the breaking of his two-plus season streak of three-goal games, the senior broke another streak which had seen him tally at least a score since a 2011 9-8 home loss to Harvard.

However, streaks only provide positive meaning while a team is winning. Further, it appears that while Schreiber’s usage has been among the league’s highest, his success rate is no longer among the conference’s best. None of his six shots were recorded as on goal.

On the other hand, the scoring touch of sophomore attackman Ryan Ambler has seen significant refinement throughout the season. He notched three goals on six shots. His 23 finishes rank third on the team behind Schreiber’s 29 and Froccaro’s 26.

Princeton’s goalie play has been questioned throughout the season, manifest most clearly in the earlier regularity with which the different keepers were rotated. Junior Eric Sanschagrin saved a solid 13 of 22 shots on goal, but will be credited with the loss for the first time this season.

One more contest awaits the Tigers. Next weekend they will take a short journey north to Bethpage, N.Y., to play in Schreiber’s native Long Island. Perhaps it is fitting that the all-world sensation will play his final collegiate game on turf perhaps even more familiar than 1952 Stadium. But perhaps his team’s work is not quite done.

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