WORCESTER, Mass. — If you watched 40 minutes of the MAAC Championship on Saturday, you never saw the game. Trailing 4-0 through two periods, Mercyhurst made a furious comeback, pulling within a goal at 5-4 with 4:03 remaining in the game.
The Quinnipiac defense bent in the final period, but thanks to some timely saves by goaltender Jamie Holden (38 saves), never broke. And when senior Ryan Olsen intercepted a pass in the closing seconds and buried it into the empty net with nine seconds remaining, Quinnipiac had sewed up its first-ever MAAC Championship, and a berth to the NCAA tournament.
“I was skating right to the crease [before shooting the puck],” said Olsen of skating down the ice with the NCAA bid on his stick. “My legs were skating, I was thinking ‘toe-pick,’ I was thinking I was going to get hauled down. I really didn’t care — I was getting to that goal before I was shooting.”
From there it was pandemonium on the bench, knowing that Quinnipiac is now the Cinderella of hockey’s March Madness.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. Pecknold, though, sat in the media room still wet after being soaked in a postgame celebration. “Maybe I celebrated a little bit on the bench [when the empty-net goal] was scored, but even then it didn’t sink in.”
The story of the game, despite the score, was actually goaltending. Mercyhurst starter, senior Peter Aubry (four saves), was the MAAC Goaltender of the Year and was riding a shutout in the semifinals into the game.
But after 18:14, Aubry was replaced by sophomore Matt Cifelli after giving up four goals on the first eight shots.
On the other hand, Holden was the backbone of Quinnipiac. Despite giving up four goals in the third period, Holden made 20 saves in the second to hold off Mercyhurst’s first attempt at a rally, a new MAAC tournament record.
“I think it’s easier to stay in a game when you’re getting more shots,” said Holden, the MAAC defensive rookie of the year and goaltender on the all-tournament team. “You don’t really stand there getting cold and you’re always in the play. The saves almost become routine.”
QU opened the scoring at 4:42 when Rob Hammel pushed home the rebound of a Todd Bennett shot for his fourth goal of the season.
At 10:48, Quinnipiac extended the lead just as a penalty expired to Mercyhurst’s Mike Muldoon. Olsen isolated the Laker defense and sent a quick pass from post to post, finding Ryan Morton for the tally that made it 2-0.
Consecutive penalties to Quinnipiac 37 seconds apart gave Mercyhurst an extended 5-on-3, but the penalty kill prevailed. The Lakers were limited to one shot, a slap shot without any screen in front of Holden that he easily handled.
“The five-on-three presented itself and we got absolutely nothing there,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, whose Lakers finish the season with 24 wins, the most in school history. “I think that’s when we started to get a little bit unglued.”
That was the turning point in the game, as Quinnipiac would add two quick goals before the end of the period to grab a 4-0 lead.
Matt Froehlich netted the first one, recipient of a good bounce off the end boards that found him alone at the left post to roof a shot over Aubry at 15:52. And Matt Craig caught a perfect tip of Tom Watkins shot from the point at 18:14 to signal the end of Aubry’s night.
“Just trying to get out of the first period was a chore for us,” added Gotkin. “The goals that really killed us were the third and fourth goals.”
Ironically, Mercyhurst outshot Quinnipiac, 11-8 in the frame, but the story was grade ‘A’ chances. Mercyhurst had only two shots from the grade ‘A’ area, while Quinnipiac had five, scoring on four of them.
With hopes of a comeback, Mercyhurst dominated the territorial play in the second period. Still, though, they couldn’t solve Holden. Sophomore Mike Carter had a glaring chance early on but couldn’t get a stick on a lose puck in front of the net with Holden out of position.
A penalty to Quinnipiac’s Dan Ennis for roughing at 8:48 gave the Lakers their third chance at the power play. This time, they were able to isolate Tom McMonagle at the right post who one-timed a pass on goal. Holden, though, flashed his glove and made the save to keep the Lakers off the board.
A late rush up ice by David Wrigley gave the Lakers a partial breakaway. Wrigley, though, was stopped by the pad of Holden and a follow-up bid by Brad Olsen was smothered by Holden as well.
The second period ended with the Lakers holding a 31-19 advantage in shots, displaying the pressure that Holden saw. In addition, the Quinnipiac defense blocked seven Laker shots that period, stifling Mercyhurst from the point.
Though a four-goal lead seemed sufficient, the Lakers tested that hypothesis. An early goal by Rich Hansen on the power play got Mercyhurst on the board. But less than a minute after that, defenseman Matt Erhart would add his own power play tally and the eventual game-winner.
Still the Lakers didn’t quit. David Wrigley caught Holden leaning a bit with a wrist shot that pulled his club within three at 5-2. And at 9:33, Adam Tackaberry finished off a 3-on-2 with Peter Ryshoven to make the score 5-3.
Gotkin still had plenty of faith.
“During a TV timeout with 10 minutes left, I told the team that we had to play two five-minute hockey games and score once in each mini-game,” said Gotkin.
The theory seemed near perfect when Mike Muldoon’s wrist shot deflected off Quinnipiac’s Mike LaRocca and over Holden’s shoulder to close the gap to an unimaginable one-goal lead with 4:03 to play.
“I was almost laughing,” said Pecknold, who immediately called a timeout to regroup his club. “[The fourth goal] was just a bad break. So I told the players to do what got them here.
“We were playing like we forgot we had the lead. We were back on our heels and I thought we needed to forecheck more.”
Forecheck they did, and successfully kept the Lakers out of the zone for much of the third period. Though moments got tense in the closing seconds, Olsen eased the hearts of the Quinnipiac faithful by scoring his empty-net goal.
Quinnipiac now heads to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school’s four-year history in Division I. It is not clear where QU will find itself in the first round of the tournament, though a bid back to the East Regional in Worcester is quite possible.
“Someone asked who I think we’ll play in the tournament,” said Pecknold. “That’s the last thing I’m thinking of. I don’t care if we play the Boston Bruins. I’m just happy to be there.”