PITTSBURGH – When Rand Pecknold took over as the coach of Quinnipiac College, the then-Braves were a Division 2 independent team that went 6-15-1, their sixth straight season with fewer than 10 victories.
That was 1994. Nineteen years later, Quinnipiac is a university, the mascot is a Bobcat, and the program is about to play for the Division 1 NCAA championship.
Quinnipiac beat St. Cloud State 4-1 Thursday night in the national semifinals, extending the Bobcats’ first-ever trip to the Frozen Four with a berth in the national title game. They’ll play Yale, a program with a longer tradition – it’s the oldest college hockey program in the country – but one that has also never been in the NCAA championship game before.
The two campuses sit less than 10 miles from each other. Some 450 miles from the stretch of road that separates them, the Southern Connecticut schools will take the ice at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center Saturday night to decide the title of Best Team in College Hockey.
The Bobcats (30-7-5) got four goals from four players in the victory, sparked by a three-goal first period that put them in the driver’s seat for the rest of the night. They wasted no time, looking every bit like the team that spanked Cornell 10-0 in the second game of the ECAC quarterfinals and ran away from Union in a 5-1 win in the East Regional final in Providence.
Jordan Samuels-Thomas (Windsor, Conn.), who scored in both games of the East Regional, picked up his team-leading 17th goal of the year with a nifty wraparound just 1:49 into the game. It was set up by some good end-board digging by Russell Goodman off an offensive zone faceoff.
Less than four minutes later, Quinnipiac doubled its lead when Samuels-Thomas tried another wraparound. This time, he lost the puck just as he got in front of St. Cloud goaltender Ryan Faragher (24 saves), but the puck landed on Ben Arnt’s stick, and the senior snapped it home for a 2-0 advantage with 5:07 gone.
“I think we’d do anything to replay the first 10 minutes of the hockey game,” said St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko, whose team finishes at 25-16-1. “It hit us upside the head. In most of these 25 wins, we only gave up two goals or under.”
Quinnipiac was officially off to the races with 8:41 to go in the first, with Jeremy Langlois pouncing on a rebound off of a Zach Davies shot. The Bobcats took the 3-0 lead into the first intermission, and never looked back.
“We talk a lot as a team, when you’re going to have a big shift, not only is it important for that shift, but it gets our bench going,” Pecknold said. “Our guys are real close, they’re real tight. [Samuels-Thomas] had a couple of shifts, and now you’ve got [Matthew] Peca and the [Jones] twins on the bench, now they’re licking their chops because they want to do that, and Langlois is ready to go.
“That’s something we’ve done all year long, where one line will have a great shift, and it just energizes the other lines, and it’s fun to watch,” Pecknold said.
In the second, the Bobcats looked only slightly vulnerable when Joey Benik took a crossing feed from Kevin Gravel, and waited for QU goaltender Eric Hartzell (33 saves) to hit the ice before popping the puck into the net with 13:35 to go.
That gave St. Cloud the only life it had all game, as the Huskies struggled to connect passes, and even when they did, Hartzell - one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award - was there to deny them.
“He was outstanding,” said St. Cloud’s Ben Hanowski. “He showed why he’s up for the Hobey.”
Benik’s goal turned out to be a minor speed bump in Quinnipiac’s Easy Street ride to the final, as Kellen Jones picked up a pass from Zach Tolkinen and walked around the St. Cloud defense before striding past Faragher to score the fourth Quinnipiac goal – “a crushing play,” Motzko called it.
The 4-1 lead lasted into the third thanks to some incredible saves by Hartzell on a late St. Cloud power play.
The third period trundled along without a goal as the Bobcats went into cruise control. Hartzell made nine of his saves in the third. It basically became a countdown for Quinnipiac, which earned the No. 1 ranking in the nation for the first time in its history this season and won the ECAC regular season title going away, but failed to win the league championship.
Instead, it played in the consolation game, beating the very same Yale team it will face on Saturday.
“Really, that win in Atlantic City for us, we had nothing to play for,” said Pecknold, whose Bobcats have a 3-0 record against Yale this year. “Literally nothing. We tried to motivate our guys, and we weren't very good. Hartzell stole the game for us. He was just an absolute stud.
“I think you can throw the 3-0 out the window,” Pecknold said. “It's going to be a battle.”
Saturday will bring the first all-ECAC national final since 1978, when Boston University beat Boston College. That matchup is also the only one between teams in closer proximity to each other than Yale and Quinnipiac.
This year’s ECAC consolation game couldn’t have meant less to the Bobcats, who were already assured of the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Saturday’s rematch will obviously mean a good deal more.