WORCESTER, Mass. — When it comes playoff time, the teams that seem to rise to the top of any pile are most often the ones deep in experience. Talented rookies can take you, without any doubt, into the postseason, but college clubs rich and juniors and seniors are usually the ones hoisting the trophy come tournament’s end.
That’s conventional thinking. Quinnipiac, though, has no reason to be thought of as conventional.
The Maize and Blue Thursday got the ultimate rookie performance in their 3-2 victory over Sacred Heart, advancing them to a rematch of last year’s MAAC championship with Mercyhurst this Saturday in the title tilt. Behind the backstop of freshman Jamie Holden, who made 33 saves in stifling the Pioneers, and a two-goal effort by rookie center Matt Craig, Quinnipiac lives to see another day.
“There’s no question that the freshmen have made a major impact,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, whose club is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the MAAC final four. “We jumped from sixth or seventh [in the standings] all the way up to second in the second half of the year because my freshman got it going.
“It’s a great freshman class, probably ahead of where I want them to be. I can be proud of them.”
Holden’s appearance and performance in the semifinal on Thursday was a chance at redemption of sort. He was lifted in favor of sophomore goaltender Justin Eddy last Saturday night after giving up four goals to Iona in the first 25 minutes of the MAAC quarterfinal. Obviously, Quinnipiac was able to rally and win the game, but that left Pecknold with the question of which of his two quality goaltenders to play.
“I was absolutely pleased with the way that Justin Eddy played [on Saturday night],” said Pecknold of his sophomore goaltender who a year ago won the starting job over senior J.C. Wells. “He struggled in the beginning of the year but he’s really come on a lot.
“But Jamie’s won the job this year. I felt confident in either guy who I threw out there, but to me, Jamie’s been our MVP this year and he needs to play that game.”
“I was a little shaken up after the Iona game,” said Holden. “In a one game elimination it’s either you do or you don’t. I felt a little bit of pressure there and on one of the goals I got kind of caught deep. A couple of the guys came out and got behind me and said they wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for me in the regular season, so stand tall and I’ll get ‘em later.
“I just really wanted to play my best for the seniors and the coaches and that’s what I did tonight to get us a win.”
Holden, though without any college playoff experience, is still no stranger to playing in the big game. Before arriving at Quinnipiac, Holden led Merritt in the BCHL through an upset-laden playoff trail that ended with a runner-up finish in the British Columbia championship.
“We played 15 playoff games [last year] and I started every one,” said Holden. “You win some and you lose some and you just have to keep your head up high and never get down on yourself. We have to keep positive like we did at Iona and like we did tonight and we came back and won both games.”
Craig, who hails from London, Ontario, and played last season for the Stratford Cullitans of the Mid-Western league, is no stranger to playoffs. He led his Stratford team to the league championship in 1998 and carried the club to the Ontario finals. Still, he admitted that in the beginning of tonight’s game, there were plenty of butterflies.
“There were definitely butterflies early in the first,” said Craig. “Some of the seniors on my line, though, helped us out with that and we really got it going in the second period.”
Got it going, they did. And Craig was the catalyst. After Brian Herbert’s tally at 2:38 gave the Maize and Blue some momentum, Craig built on it, scoring 58 seconds later to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. But that wasn’t the end for this quiet and reserved rookie. He would use his speed and a great individual effort to speed past the Sacred heart defenseman and lift the eventual game-winner over Sacred Heart goaltender Eddy Ferhi.
Such has been the story for this Quinnipiac team. Having graduated five of the top 20 scorers in school history from last year’s runner-up squad, everyone knew that Pecknold would have to bring in a top-notch recruiting class. Then, though, once getting those rookies through the door, it would be up to Pecknold, and more importantly his small senior class of Neil Breen, Ryan Olsen, Todd Bennett and Ben Blais, to help this freshman class adjust.
“The confidence [of the seniors] in the last few games has rubbed off on me personally, and it runs right down the whole team,” said Craig, whose Quinnipiac club is 5-0-1 in its last six games and has lost only twice since a pair at Michigan State in early January.
“My seniors have really stepped up in the second half of the year, and they played really well tonight,” said Pecknold, who admitted that his club basically gelled around the Christmas break. “They are really excited to go back and take care of Mercyhurst on Saturday night.”
Now, the daunting task lies ahead of facing Mercyhurst, a team full of seniors — seniors with NCAA tournament experience. Regardless, that won’t shake Quinnipiac, which Thursday night proved that with this talented crop of freshmen, the future looks bright.