Scoring goals is just one way to get a hockey crowd pumped up.

Big hits will do it, too.

Mays Landing resident Aaron Kesselman specializes in the latter for the Princeton University men's ice hockey team.

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"He has the ability to change the complexion of the game with a big hit," Tigers coach Bob Prier said in a phone interview Thursday. "I think he can catch people in the open ice by surprise a lot of times. He's not an overly big player (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), but he's packed full of power, so I think he surprises a lot of guys and is able to knock guys off their feet and really give us a lot of momentum. He's done that a few times this year."

Prier would like to see a few more big hits from Kesselman this weekend, when eighth-seeded Princeton (10-14-5 overall, 8-10-4 ECAC) hosts ninth-seeded Cornell (12-14-3, 8-11-3) in the first round of the ECAC tournament. The winner gets one step closer to Atlantic City, where Boardwalk Hall will be the site of the ECAC semifinals and championship game March 22 and 23, respectively.

For Kesselman, one of two New Jersey residents playing for the closest NCAA Division I hockey team to Atlantic City, a trip home would be extra special.

"It'd be awesome," the 21-year-old said in a phone interview Monday. "It's awesome being a Jersey guy playing for Princeton. I take pride in the fact that I'm one of the few right now."

Kesselman's game is not just about hitting. He has three goals and two assists in 25 games despite being hindered by a shoulder injury for part of the season.

Only a sophomore - he took a year off from school before college - Kesselman could develop into more of an offensive force, Prier said.

"We've certainly seen flashes of him being one of the more physically dominant players on the ice," the coach said. "When it all comes together for him, the potential is there for him that he can be a really solid all-around type player that can put up numbers. … He's starting to get more comfortable making plays and holding on to the puck a little longer and moving his feet."

For now, though, Kesselman prides himself on his defense and penalty-killing.

"(My role is) just shutting down the other team pretty much," he said, "making sure the guys who are putting the pucks in the net can do that and have leeway."

When he makes a big hit, Kesselman hears from the crowd. Hobey Baker Memorial Rink - which opened in 1923, six years before Boardwalk Hall - lists its capacity as 2,092, but the Tigers have averaged 2,208 this season.

Kesselman said that has been a new experience for him. Many of his teammates played for junior teams with large fan bases, but Kesselman said the crowds were sparse during the three seasons he played for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs of the Eastern Junior Hockey League prior to college.

"The fan base here at Hobey is just phenomenal," he said. "It creates such an unreal atmosphere that just pumps you up to the next level."

The fact that Kesselman has been able to experience major D-1 hockey just a short drive from home is ironic considering he moved to New Hampshire for juniors, leaving Oakcrest High School after his sophomore year.

Kesselman said his mother, Lynne, has attended every game this season, and his father, Harvey, has made it to most of them. In the spring after the season is over, he is able to make it home on some weekends.

"It's really a nice experience," he said. "It's great to be this close to home."

Kesselman hopes the next trip he makes home is for the ECAC semifinals.

The Tigers face a tough road. They swept Cornell in the regular season, but if all the higher-seeded teams advance, then a potential second-round matchup with top-seeded Quinnipiac looms. The Bobcats are No. 1 in the nation in all three rankings listed on the NCAA's website.

Anything is possible, though, in the stacked ECAC. While Princeton is the No. 8 seed, the Tigers are ranked No. 39 in the nation in ratings percentage index (RPI).

All 12 ECAC teams are in the top 48 of the RPI. And Harvard, No. 48, beat Quinnipiac 2-1 in overtime last Friday.

"Our league is so tight," Kesselman said. "I mean, we went into one weekend in second place and I think we lost one game and we're in sixth the next day. It's just a really tight league. Any team can beat any team, and I think that's kind of rare."

If Princeton can string together a few wins over the next two weeks, Kesselman's hitting ability could be on display soon at Boardwalk Hall.

"We have high aspirations for ourselves this year," he said. "It'd be great to go there."

Contact Jason Mazda:


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