UPDATED: March 19, 2016, at 7:19 p.m.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — “You can’t win the championship unless you win today,” Quinnipiac men’s hockey coach Rand Pecknold said Friday night.
Despite steamrolling its way through college hockey from season’s beginning to end, Pecknold and the No. 2/2 Bobcats (28-3-7, 16-1-5) entered this year’s ECAC semifinals with some doubt hanging over their heads, as Quinnipiac had advanced to just one conference championship in 10 years since entering the ECAC in 2005.
But up against Dartmouth in the semifinals on Friday, Pecknold got the result he was after. The Bobcats scored the first three goals of the night at Herb Brooks Arena en route to a 3-1 victory over the Big Green, sending the conference frontrunners into their first title game since 2007.
Now Quinnipiac will face No. 9/9 Harvard (19-9-4, 12-6-4)—a 2-1 overtime winner in Friday’s nightcap against No. 17/- St. Lawrence—in a matchup of the ECAC’s two most prolific offenses.
“This, to me, is a great challenge for us,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “Quinnipiac has been the class of our league and the class of the country for the most part for the entire season…. But I think our guys are excited about that challenge.”
After solving one hot goaltender in Dartmouth’s Charles Grant on Friday, the Bobcats will have to solve another on Saturday. Crimson sophomore Merrick Madsen had made at least 35 saves in three of his last four games, including Friday’s win over the Saints, and has a .957 save percentage over that stretch.
But with Harvard’s defense playing undermanned this weekend, the Bobcat attack—ranked fourth in the country with 3.87 goals per game—could be poised to explode.
Crimson defenseman Wiley Sherman will miss his second consecutive game with an upper body injury. Donato will trot out the same defensive personnel that he did Friday night, as he confirmed Saturday afternoon.
“I thought our D-core gave up one goal last night and made a lot of good plays against a very strong St. Lawrence team,” Donato said. “We’ll see how the health is for everybody, but we don’t foresee too many changes.”
Freshman Adam Baughman will remain in Sherman’s place on the second defensive pair with senior Brayden Jaw, and sophomore Thomas Aiken will make another appearance on the third pairing.
The new-look Crimson blue line held St. Lawrence at bay for much of the game on Friday, but the Bobcats are a whole different monster.
While the Saints’ leading scorer was a defenseman with 12 goals, Quinnipiac features multiple 20-goal scorers, four forwards with at least 30 points, and three defensemen with at least 20 points.
Centering Quinnipiac’s top line is senior Travis St. Denis, a second-team all-ECAC honoree with 20 goals and 23 assists on the year. Fourth-liner Tim Clifton, the league’s leader in plus-minus (+24) and another second-teamer, has also emerged as a dangerous scoring threat.
But the driving force behind the Bobcat attack is junior forward Sam Anas, who leads Quinnipiac with 23 goals and 25 assists through 38 games this season. The ECAC’s leading point-getter has two scores and a helper in two games against the Crimson this year, both wins for the Bobcats—a 4-1 decision in Hamden, Conn., and a 5-4 overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden.
When Harvard and Quinnipiac did battle in last year’s ECAC semifinals here in Lake Placid, however, Anas was sidelined with a leg injury he suffered against Union in the conference quarterfinals. The Crimson opened up a 3-0 first-period lead in that contest, a game which Harvard held on to win, 5-2, behind a pair of late empty-netters.
It won’t take long for fans to spot Anas this time around, however. The junior has scored a goal in each of his two appearances at Herb Brooks Arena, most recently on the power play against Dartmouth Friday night.
Nonetheless, the Bobcats are deep enough that they do not have to rely on their biggest star. Quinnipiac boasts an offense, a defense, a power play, and a penalty kill that all rank among the top 10 respective units in the nation.
“They’re a team that tries to pressure you into making mistakes and is very good at taking advantage of them, so I think we have to be very good with the puck,” Donato said. “I think we need to use our speed and skill to go after them—not sit back on our heels, but play on our toes. We expect this to be a very hard fought game against an excellent team.”
One particular areas of concern for Harvard that Donato mentioned was puck management on the Olympic sheet. With the speed of its forward group, the Crimson is well-equipped to excel on the big ice, but Quinnipiac employs a similar quick-strike offense that should negate any advantage Harvard might be used to having on a larger ice surface.
Another area of concern for the Crimson is the absence of junior center Sean Malone, who is being held out as a precautionary measure after dealing with cramps last night, per Assistant Director of Athletic Communications Brock Malone. Sean Malone was listed as a gametime decision but did not participate in the pregame skate. Freshman Michael Floodstrand will take his place.
After topping St. Lawrence last night, Harvard—ranked 11th in the PairWise—is an effective lock to make the NCAA tournament regardless of Saturday’s outcome. Donato says that should allow his side to focus more on the task at hand.
“We won’t have that little bit of fear in the back of the mind that if you don’t win, you don’t make the NCAA tournament,” Donato said. “There’s seven teams that are going to raise a trophy from here to the end of the season—six conference winners and the national champion. Our guys are really locked in and focused and want to win this game.”
While Quinnipiac will be seeking its first Whitelaw Cup in ECAC history, the Crimson will be chasing its second consecutive title and its 10th all time.
“We know how important it is and how hard it is to win this tournament,” Criscuolo said. “It’s definitely something we want to do right now and not wait a few more years to get back here. It’s something special and we want to win it.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.
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