WORCESTER, Mass. — Experience has its privileges. But talented freshmen are a plus, too.
Making its fourth straight appearance in the MAAC semifinals, Quinnipiac withstood a furious rush from a determined Sacred Heart squad that had never advanced this far in the conference tournament, holding on to win 3-2.
Clinging to a one-goal lead, Quinnipiac goaltender Jamie Holden, a freshman, stopped 10 shots in a frantic third period that saw Sacred Heart buzzing around the net.
Although a rookie, Holden had some experience of his own. The team he was with last year made it deep into the playoffs. “You can draw a lot from that. We played 15 playoff games and I started every one,” said Holden. “As soon as you get down on yourself, it goes downhill from there. Keep it positive, like we did [last weekend] with Iona, and like we did tonight.”
“My seniors have really stepped up the second half of the year,” said Rand Pecknold, Quinnipiac head coach. “They played great tonight, and the freshmen obviously played great tonight, too. I’m proud of my team.”
Down a goal, Quinnipiac exploded for three goals in the deciding second period. Freshman center Matt Craig scored two goals less than three minutes apart to send Quinnipiac into the MAAC championship game for the second year in a row. Quinnipiac will face Mercyhurst, a 5-0 winner over Connecticut earlier in the day. This will mark the same matchup as last year’s title bout.
“In the second period the energy came from the first few shifts, and it rubbed of on me and my linemates,” said Craig. “After our line got it going, it rubbed off on the whole team and it kept going for that whole period.”
The first period belonged to Sacred Heart. The Pioneers outshot Quinnipiac 14-10, and got on the scoreboard with the period’s only goal. Quinnipiac’s Matt Erhart took a shot on the Sacred Heart goal from the point which was blocked by Sacred Heart’s Paul Sposito, who started a rush the other way. On a three on two break, Sposito passed across the slot to teammate Pete McRae, who scored the first goal of the game.
The second period saw the emergence of the Quinnipiac offense, beginning with a power-play goal in the opening minutes of the frame. Keeping the puck in the Sacred Heart defensive zone, the puck was cycled around until Wade Winkler was able to find Brian Herbert with an open shot at the side of the net.
Less than a minute later with Quinnipiac controlling play, Chris White found Matt Craig in the slot. Craig got off one shot that was stopped by Ferhi, but snapped up the rebound to take the one goal lead.
“The world fell off. We didn’t fall off the end of the world,” said Pioneer coach Shaun Hannah. “It was a big goal for them, the goal to take the lead.”
Craig increased that lead with a flashy goal at 13:27. From center ice, Craig received a pass at the blue line from Ryan Olson. Craig skated unmolested into the zone, deked Ferhi and shot the puck into the net.
After the third Quinnipiac goal of the period, Sacred Heart started to generate some offense. When Quinnipiac’s Todd Bennett was called for crosschecking, a Pioneer goal seemed likely. However, some inspired play by the Quinnipiac penalty kill limited any chances that the Pioneers might have had.
Sacred Heart had a chance to get back in the game with a Quinnipiac penalty early in the third. With Sacred Heart trapping the puck in the Quinnipiac zone, Chris Mokos dug the puck out of the corner and completed a cross-ice pass to an open Mike Reagan, who wasted no time in pulling the Pioneers within one.
What followed was a frenzy of activity, but no more goals.
“I never thought about losing. I don’t think anybody else on the team thought about losing at all,” said Sacred Heart senior Pete McRae. “We were confident. We got that power-play goal and we were right back in it.
“We got a few more chances, and right down to the last 30 seconds, we thought we were going to tie the game up. When the buzzer rang, it was a shock.”
The loss ends the Pioneers’ season with a record of 16-14-4. Quinnipiac goes on to face Mercyhurst Saturday, with the winner of that game receiving an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.