NEW YORK — Historic. Emotional. Exciting.
All words to describe Saturday’s game between Quinnipiac and Connecticut, the battle for the second annual “Heroes’ Hat” played at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Bobcats, playing in the world’s most famous arena, narrowly beat the Huskies by the score of 4-3. The game itself was huge for both teams trying to make their moves in the MAAC standings but much of the overpowering excitement around the contest was because of where, and for what, it was played.
Saturday marked the first Division I hockey game at Madison Square Garden since 1977, when Boston University beat St. Lawrence in a holiday tournament. It was the final game in the series for the “Heroes’ Hat,” awarded to the team who wins the three-game regular-season series, which was tied at 1 coming into the day.
The award was started to honor those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and it individually remembers Joseph Mascali, father of two Quinnipiac students, and Amy Jarret, who was the sister of UConn player Matt Jarret.
The game came off as such a success that there are already talks in place of another Quinnipiac-UConn game in New York City, and possibly a yearly game at MSG.
“This was more of an experience for everybody. This wasn’t about who won this game today,” said Quinnipiac Athletic Director Jack McDonald. “This was a couple thousand people being part of sport, part of the American patriotism. It was just a great event. I was thrilled to be part of it … We are all going to do what we can to make this happen again.”
Both teams arrived early for the game to take in their surroundings and to get some of the jitters out. They got a little treat as the New York Rangers had a practice that both teams took in.
“The guys walk in you feel the excitement. Obviously the Rangers were on the ice before us and puts a little jump in your step,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall. “I think because of the building and what was going on, both teams — regardless of how tired they were — put on a pretty good show. So I think that’s a tribute to the venue that you’re in too.”
As for the game itself, Quinnipiac got the early lead just 1:22 in, on the power play as Craig Falite knocked home a rebound from his knees.
Less than two minutes later it was Quinnipiac lighting the lamp again as a bad turnover by UConn gave Quinnipiac a 3-on-0. The Bobcats converted as Ryan Morton made a nice pass to Matt Froehlich for the one-timer to make it 2-0.
At that point it looked like the Bobcats might run away with it, but after an interference call to Tom Watkins halfway through the period, the Huskies capitalized from the top the circle as Marcus Baxter fired it past Bobcat goaltender Justin Eddy.
UConn netminder Artie Imbriano kept the score 2-1 with some great goaltending towards the end of the first period, but eight minutes into the second Quinnipiac regained the two-goal lead as Chris White, on a two-on-one, looked pass but went deke and found an opening blocker-side.
Less than a minute later, UConn scored to make it a one-goal game again on the power play. Eric Nelson fired in a slapshot from the point and the score was 3-2.
In the third period Quinnipiac advanced to 4-2 at 8:03 as John Kelly banged in a rebound. But once again UConn had an answer on the power play as Tim Olsen made a beautiful pass to Mark Murphy streaking in and he buried it.
The power play for UConn was strong, converting three of five opportunities.
But the Huskies would get no closer than 4-3; a timeout with 1:37 remaining did not help generate offense. Quinnipiac won the game 4-3, and also the “Heroes’ Hat” for the second consecutive year.
“We came out flying and we were ready to go from the start,” said Falite, who has already tripled his point total from his freshman year. “We just want to get back-to-back wins together and get a little streak going come playoff time.”
“We needed a win, we’ve been struggling. We’re 4-7 in our last 11 so that was a big win,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. “From a bigger prospective I think it’s [the game] a great tribute to everyone who lost their lives on 9/11. It means a lot to me. My wife was working on that day in Seven World Trade and fortunately got out OK. So I was touched deeply by the whole situation. So I think it’s just a great experience for both teams to be involved in.”
The game will be remembered by both teams for a long time, but both must move on as the season only has a few games left.
“I thought we had a pretty good weekend where we made some great strides but unfortunately it’s not October anymore. It’s March 1. The strides we made we should have made in November,” said Marshall. “So we just have to hope that we take care of business Thursday and that we do it again on Saturday and maybe we still have a chance. We’re going to need some help, but that’s what happens sometimes.”
UConn needs to catch Iona, which is two points ahead for the final MAAC playoff spot. The Huskies play Iona in their next game on Thursday at 5 p.m.
Quinnipiac hopes this win can re-energize its season. Its next game is Wednesday at American International College at 7 p.m.