By Andy Merritt
PROVIDENCE – Though Quinnipiac was once the No. 1 team in the country, even coach Rand Pecknold agreed the Bobcats haven’t played their best hockey over the last month.
For the final 20 minutes of Saturday night’s NCAA East Regional semifinal, however, they were as good as they needed to be.
Quinnipiac scored three unanswered goals to overcome an early scare from Canisius, the 16th overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and win 4-3 at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
The Bobcats (28-7-5), who move on to play the winner of the Boston College-Union nightcap in Sunday’s regional final, got goals from Matthew Peca, Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Kevin Bui to get past the pesky Golden Griffins (19-19-5), the surprise champions of Atlantic Hockey.
Bui’s goal, scored with 5:32 to go in the game, capped a furious rally and gave the Bobcats – the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed – the victory. But it was anything but easy. After the Bobcats jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, Canisius scored twice in the second period and again early in the third, holding a lead until Samuels-Thomas’ equalizer midway through the third.
“It was just like the Cornell game,” said Bui, referring to Quinnipiac’s 3-2 overtime victory on March 17, which clinched its ECAC opening round series against the Big Red. “It’s just 21 guys believing we can get back. We started putting the pressure on them, and they took a couple penalties.”
The Golden Griffins doomed themselves with a pair of penalties in the middle of the third. Shortly after Matthew Peca scored to cut Canisius’ lead to 3-2, Ben Parker took a cross-checking call that let to Samuels-Thomas’ tying goal.
Pecknold knew his team was in good shape even before Samuels-Thomas fired his wrister through traffic with 9:18 to go.
“I knew we were gonna win,” Pecknold said. “We made it 3-2, and I think even the bench knew we were gonna win.”
A hooking call to Mitch McCrank less than a minute after Samuels-Thomas’ goal put Canisius a man down yet again, and the momentum had clearly shifted. Although McCrank had already served his time when Bui scored, the goal capped an obvious turnaround for the favored Bobcats.
“The penalties played a little into it,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “But they upped their game. They got a power play goal, they get a real nice goal from Peca, and it’s a ballgame.”
The Jones brothers got things started for the Bobcats just short of nine minutes into the game, when Kellen Jones fed his twin at the point, and Connor Jones made it 1-0 for the Bobcats.
Quinnipiac had the run of things for much of the first 20 minutes, but in the second period, the underdog Golden Griffins surprised the Bobcats with two quick-strike goals. Stephen Farrell scored the first to tie it with 4:24 gone, sneaking a feed from Matthew Grazen through Eric Hartzell. Just 42 seconds later, Patrick Sullivan tipped a Duncan McKellar shot past Hartzell to give Canisius a 2-1 lead, which it held through the rest of the second.
The Golden Griffins held that lead into the third, in fact. Then they doubled it. Kyle Gibbons walked out of the right wing corner with 16:17 to go and tried a backhand attempt that Hartzell stopped, but couldn’t corral. Gibbons, being knocked off his feet by a Quinnipiac defender, had a Bobby Orr moment as he flicked the puck past Hartzell for a 3-1 Canisius lead.
Canisius goaltender Tony Capobianco made sure his club stayed in the game, making 36 saves on 40 Quinnipiac shots. The Bobcats’ Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker finalist, made just 20 saves but shone down the stretch, including a late penalty kill that saw the Griffs pull Capobianco for a 6-on-4 skater advantage.
“The 6-on-4 kill was the highlight of the game for us,” Pecknold said.
Smith reflected on the rise of Canisius into a tournament team, saying part of his squad’s goal this year was “to get in the conversation” about teams with a national presence. After taking the No. 1 overall seed to the limit, there’s no doubt the Griffs are in that conversation.
It’s just that Saturday night, Quinnipiac got the last word.