WORCESTER, Mass. — Quinnipiac, like every other team in the NCAA tournament, only dressed 18 skaters in Saturday’s game with Cornell.
Unfortunately for QU, it was the 19th man — named Murphy — who showed up on the Quinnipiac bench; but instead of carrying his stick and helmet, he brought his law.
Entering the game as one of the biggest underdogs in tournament history, everything that could go wrong did for Quinnipiac — including nerves, jitters and bad bounces — as the Maize and Blue fell 6-1 to a superior Cornell team in Saturday’s opening round of the NCAA East Regional.
Quinnipiac fell behind, 4-0, in the first period thanks to what, in essence, were awful bounces that occurred one after another and brought the jitters that were living in the bellies of the Quinnipiac players right onto the bench.
“Bad breaks like that happen in the NHL. You probably see them once every 200 games,” said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. “It’s just unfortunate to have all of them happen to us [in an NCAA tournament game].”
Those breaks, specifically, were two bobbles of the puck by rookie goaltender Jamie Holden (one save), who was pulled 3:30 into the game after surrendering two goals resulting from those bobbles in favor of Justin Eddy (28 saves). But those were just pieces of Quinnipiac’s problems.
The biggest problem that compounded was the team’s nerves. Quinnipiac, who earned its way into the tournament with an auto-bid for winning the MAAC Championship, was making its first appearance in the big dance, just four years after becoming a Division I club. Pecknold told the media on Friday that his team had jitters and nerves before practice. Though hoping to hide them, the opposite came true when Cornell grabbed the early lead.
“It wasn’t just two early goals [that hurt us],” said Pecknold. “It was the way they went in. I think that took the wind out of our sails.
“We do have a great character team. We do have a lot of kids who will compete. In a game like this I thought that we could overcome the disparity in talent. But unfortunately once that happened [the two-goal deficit], we struggled to even just work hard.”
Looking extremely tentative and nervous, Quinnipiac was unable to clear the puck from its zone right from the opening faceoff. Cornell rookie Mike Knoepfli fired a shot wide of the Quinnipiac net that bounced back into the crease. Not expecting the puck, Holden nearly knocked it into his own net, but did knock it right to the stick of a charging Krysztof Wieckowski, who buried the golf equivalent to the two-foot tap in.
Bad bounce number one. Murphy’s law reared its ugly head.
At that point, muscles tightened and nervous showed in the eyes of Quinnipiac while Cornell’s nose was tight to the ice for the smell of blood. Only 89 seconds into the game, Cornell went for the kill.
Pressuring the nervous netminder, Cornell’s Sam Paolini watched Holden fan on a clearing pass and took it upon himself to bury the loose puck into an empty net just 3:30 in. The bobble knocked Holden out of the game and, for all intents and purposes, knocked Quinnipiac from the tournament.
Bad bounce number two. Mr. Murphy, would you please identify yourself again?
“Anyone playing a rink with a capacity of 12,000 is going to have a bit of shakes going into the game,” admitted Quinnipiac senior Neil Breen. “You could see in the first period the jitters got to us a bit, and after that we just struggled.”
Quinnipiac might have seen a glimmer of light when a Cornell penalty put it on the power play at 5:01. But then again, there’s Murphy’s Law. Thirty-eight seconds into the power play, a mix-up at the bench caused a too-many-men penalty, erasing the opportunity.
Before the end of the first period, Cornell scored goals number three and four. Doug Murray’s power-play tally through a screen at 8:57 gave the Big Red a 3-0 lead. At this point, still, Quinnipiac was without a shot. When Kelly Hughes’ blast found the back of the net at 14:24, Cornell had four goals, which equaled the total shots with which Quinnipiac ended the period.
When the two teams returned for the second period, Quinnipiac looked calmer, but with little consolation. Cornell outshot Quinnipiac, 14-3, in the period with the Big Red’s Ryan Vesce scoring the only goal, banking home a rebound on the power play at 7:56.
Quinnipiac was able to destroy Cornell goaltender Matt Underhill’s (13
saves) bid for a shutout. After Stephen Baby put Cornell up, 6-0, with a shorthanded goal at 3:28 of the third, Quinnipiac’s Ryan Morton was credited with a goal with 4:37 remaining. It was payback from Murphy; Morton’s centering pass banked off the skate of a Cornell defensemen and into the net for Quinnipiac’s lone score.
The win advances Cornell to Sunday’s regional final, where it will meet rested New Hampshire — which had a bye and did not play on Saturday — for a bid to the Frozen Four.
Though the Wildcats are rested, the fashion in which the Bid Red won on Saturday may wipe out UNH’s advantage.
“Getting such a big lead, we didn’t have to play certain guys towards the end of the game,” said Cornell defenseman Doug Murray. “We could take it easy and not try to make something happen. We were able to save energy.”
Quinnipiac ends its season at 20-13-5, the fourth consecutive year that the club has posted 20 wins.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the outcome of the game, but I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” said Pecknold. “We have to look at the fact that we were picked [to finish] fifth [in the MAAC] in the regular season. It certainly ended on a little bit of a down note but we had a great playoff run.”