WORCESTER, Mass. — First goal given up in the NCAA tournament: One minute, 29 seconds.
First goalie pulled from a NCAA tournament game: Three minutes, 30 seconds.
First legitimate shot on goal in the tournament: 11 minutes, 34 seconds.
Opportunity to play in the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament: Priceless.
“I’m definitely proud of the accomplishments we’ve made as a team this year-especially the senior class,” Quinnipiac captain Neil Breen said. “We’ve gone through thick and thin; we’ve grown as an organization and as a group. The young guys came in here and showed up too.
“It’s tough to end up on a bad note, but the MAAC is going to continue to build.”
As the MAAC tournament champion receiving an autobid, Quinnipiac came into this afternoon’s game against Cornell hoping against hope to be able to compete on the NCAA’s big stage.
Heartened by a better-than-expected showing by Mercyhurst against Michigan last season in the conference’s inaugural appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Quinnipiac would need excellent goaltending, resilience, heart, and some lucky bounces to have any chance of beating the ECAC regular-season champions.
QU’s hopes were not completely naive. The two teams faced each other at Lynah Rink in January 2001, and battled to a 2-2 tie despite Quinnipiac being able to dress only 16 skaters, due to injuries and five players being suspended due to breaking a team rule.
Early on, though, it was obvious that the hockey gods would not smile upon Quinnipiac Saturday.
After standing defending champion Mercyhurst on its head with 38 saves in a thrilling 6-4 victory in the MAAC final, freshman goaltender Jamie Holden came into the NCAAs shouldering great and perhaps unfair expectations. Some predicted that the MAAC Defensive Rookie of the Year might have to make 40 or 50 saves to keep his team in the game.
Pressure-induced or not, Holden was directly responsible for the first two goals. The Big Red scored on their first shot of the game when Mike Knoepfli threw a harmless-looking shot off the back boards near the net. Holden didn’t anticipate that the puck would bounce straight back out, and he had his back to the play. The puck wound up behind his feet, and before he could sit on it Krzystof Wieckowski poked it home just 89 ticks in.
Two minutes and one second later, Holden was pulled after his stickhandling gaffe teed up Cornell’s second tally. Well outside of his crease, he picked up a dump into the zone and seemed tentative about where to send it before partially fanning on his pass. The puck went right on the stick of Cornell winger Sam Paolini, who buried it easily.
“On the second one, he made a freshman mistake,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “That really rattled our team. We’re a young team, and this is a new environment.”
“Jamie obviously is a freshman,” added Pecknold. “Last year in juniors he made an amazing playoff run for his team, the Merritt (B.C.) Centennials. It was a very mediocre team, which he basically carried on his back. They played four-out-of-sevens, and he took them all the way to the championship series.. So he’s a playoff goalie. He just got a couple bad breaks.
“He was our MVP this year.”
Two shots, two goals. Exit Holden, enter sophomore Justin Eddy between the pipes.
“It was a no-brainer,” Pecknold said. “I hadn’t even told Justin yet, and he was grabbing his helmet. And Jamie was grabbing his water bottle. I think he knew that the switch had to happen.”
Eddy fared a little better, holding Cornell scoreless for over five minutes. Then Hobey Baker finalist Doug Murray made it 3-0. Tournament jitters were a factor for QU.
“I think anybody who’s playing in a rink with a capacity of 12,000 is going to have a bit of the shakes going into the game,” Breen said.
Quinnipiac didn’t get its first solid shot on goal until 11:34, when centerman Matt Craig fired a left-wing slapshot at Matt Underhill. Meanwhile, all four forward lines for the Big Red figured in the scoring — and they did so by 14:24 in the first period.
The game was a jolt of reality for QU, which came into the game with a 13-2-4 record in its last 19 games. Quinnipiac is also one of just five Division I teams with four consecutive 20-win seasons, despite playing nine freshmen regularly.
The Q-Men showed pride in killing off a five-minute major in the second period, and getting nice flashes out of Ryan Olson and Ryan Morton as well as a game effort in the net by Eddy, but this would be a case of Goliath living up to the favorite’s role, stomping on David quite convincingly.
“This was an opportunity to showcase our team’s grit and character,” Pecknold said. “The way those two goals went in — they just took the wind out of our sails. Fortunately we have a lot of grit, and a lot of kids who will compete. In a game like this, I thought we could overcome the little bit of disparity of talent. Unfortunately, once that happened, they were just struggling to work hard.”
That was one struggle that Quinnipiac eventually won, playing hard even with the game well out of reach, threatening Matt Underhill more than once in the third period. Cornell was coasting a little — saving itself for the No. 1 team in the nation Sunday — but it was nice to see a little bit of what this young team can do.
The game also ended the collegiate careers of senior standouts Breen (121 GP, 46-68–110) and Olson (130 GP, 58-76–134), who could say, at least, that they made history by leading The Team Formerly Known As The Braves to an historic NCAA appearance.
“Aside from having a tough first period and loss, I still think it’s a great experience for my players, our program, and our staff,” Pecknold said. “But I think the nicest thing I saw this week was the excitement on our campus. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just awesome.
“I walked in the other day to work, and there were all these kids in the lobby where the ticket window is,” said the Quinnipiac coach. “I had no idea — I thought they were waiting for PE class and somebody tells me they’ve been camped out since 5 a.m. to get tickets.
“To me, that’s special. We don’t have that happen at Quinnipiac. This was a huge building block for us; a big step in the right direction.”
So it may have been a harsh introduction, but it still opened a new chapter in the history of a successful program. They will be back — and they probably will fare better.