By Andy Merritt
PROVIDENCE – The history of Quinnipiac hockey isn’t exactly storied, but it’s got a whole new chapter now.
The Bobcats, continuing the program’s best season since moving to Division 1 in 1997, are headed to their first Frozen Four after beating Union 5-1 in the NCAA East Regional final at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. They’ll join a trio of programs in Pittsburgh who are similarly lacking in stature, and all are in search of their first national title.
To get there, Quinnipiac (29-7-5) used a history-making effort from sophomore Matthew Peca, who scored the fastest hat trick in the history of the Division 1 Tournament. His three goals in 3:12 put the Bobcats ahead 3-0 after just 13 minutes of play, and Union never recovered.
“Our team’s goal was to be relentless,” said Peca, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound sophomore out of Ontario. “We wanted to get the jump on them early. I thought we did a great job with that.”
Thanks to Peca, Quinnipiac certainly did that, but before he started his outburst, goaltender Eric Hartzell (18 saves) set the tone. With just 1:55 gone, and Union (22-13-5) looking to pick up where it left off from a dominating performance in Saturday night’s 5-1 win over Boston College in the regional semifinal, Max Novak had the puck with no Quinnipiac defender in front of him in the offensive zone. He tried a hard wrister as he closed in on Hartzell’s net, but the Hobey Baker finalist flashed his glove and kept the Dutchmen off the board.
“It’s always nice to make a big save early in the game,” Hartzell said. “I just tried to stay patient, and fortunately he put it into my glove.”
Had the shot gone in, the result of the game may have been very different. Union came in off of a thorough beating of the defending champion Eagles, and the top-seeded Bobcats did just enough to survive a scare from Canisius, the 16th seed, in their semifinal game.
But the shot didn’t go in. Hartzell made the save, and a few minutes later, Peca made history.
“I thought we were ready to roll,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “Just a little sluggish the first couple of minutes, but Hartsy makes a big save on the breakaway and we took over from there. Obviously Matthew had a big part with the natural hat trick. He’s a big time player for us, and he was the best player on the ice tonight.”
Peca got it started for the Bobcats 9:46 into the game, on a spectacular effort to redirect a rebound from a Connor Jones shot past Union goaltender Troy Grosenick (21 saves). Peca had goal No. 2 73 seconds later, jumping on a bad Union turnover in the neutral zone, skating in and beating Grosenick on the short side with a hard wrist shot to make it 2-0.
Then came the hat trick goal. Peca walked out of the left wing corner, past two Union defenders and flipped a backhand shot over Grosenick’s shoulder, giving the Bobcats a 3-0 lead with 7:02 to go in the first period and 39 seconds left on a power play.
The third Peca goal capped a streak of six scores by the Bobcats over a combined 24:54, stretching back to their furious third-period comeback against Canisius the night before.
“I felt extremely confident that we were going to be good tonight,” Pecknold said. “My main concern was I thought Union was going to be very good too. And they were; they’re well coached. They were good all year. But I give our guys a lot of credit, we battled, we went out and executed and dictated the game.”
The Bobcats could have packed it in from there and waited Union out, but instead they kept the pressure on. Peca had a chance for a fourth goal late in the first, and Jordan Samuels-Thomas (Windsor, Conn.) made it 4-0 on a power play with 12:38 to go in the second, tipping a Travis St. Denis attempt past Grosenick.
It was hardly necessary, but Kellen Jones put a bow on the victory with Quinnipiac’s fifth goal, splitting the Union defense and putting a backhand shot over Grosenick with 8:18 to go on the second. Peca picked up an assist on the play, giving him five points in the regional.
Daniel Ciampini scored the last goal of Union’s season, making it 5-1 with a power play tally 3:15 into the third. But that was all the Dutchmen had left after their late-night victory over BC the night before.
“It’s amazing in sports, you can have one of the biggest wins in program history,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “And the next night…”
The Dutchmen looked nothing like the team that hung five goals on BC the night before, and even after getting past the shock of Peca’s three quick strikes, they had none of the previous night’s poise. Meanwhile, the Bobcats had the poise – and the offense, defense and goaltending – in spades.
“They looked like a team that wanted to be in the Frozen Four,” Bennett said.
And so the Bobcats will be – Quinnipiac plays St. Cloud in the late semifinal on April 11, following the first game between UMass-Lowell and Yale. All four teams are first-time Frozen Four participants. It’s a huge achievement for all four programs, none of whom would make a list of marquee college hockey teams. But the lists, the records and the rankings don’t matter anymore. There are three games left in the college hockey season, and for the Bobcats, the objective is clear.
“We’re definitely close, but we’re still not where we want to be,” Hartzell said. “The Frozen Four’s obviously a big accomplishment, but our goal’s not just to be here, but to win.”