Quinnipiac hockey heard a lot the first time it made the Frozen Four in 2013: upstart, streaky, lucky, surprising.Now the team from a small school in Connecticut returns to the biggest stage once again the top team in the nation. Coming away as national runners-up in 2013 was only the start for the Bobcats.
On the NHL’s ice in Tampa, Fla., the Bobcats hope to gain traction in the college hockey world, jockeying for position with some of the biggest names in college hockey history.”I think those elite programs like Boston College and North Dakota and Denver have been doing it for, you know, 20 years or 50 or 60 years. So I think to get to that level I think it’s not just about, OK, it’s our second Frozen Four,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “There’s some longevity to what those teams have done. We’ve only been Division I for 18 years, so it’s not expected. We can’t expect to be doing that. … We’ve got some time before we’re going to get to that level.”The Bobcats started the year on a tear, opening the season with a 10-game winning streak and an undefeated streak that was finally broken by Boston University on Dec. 12, one of three losses Quinnipiac has on its record.The Bobcats were at or near the top of the PairWise Rankings and polls throughout the season, capturing ECAC Hockey’s Cleary Cup as regular season champions and the Whitelaw Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y..”In general, I think when you have the No. 1 team in the country it’s a huge target,” Pecknold said. “In January and February, every team we played, it was their Super Bowl. That created an incredible amount of pressure and adversity for our players, that they handled extremely well.”I think the more you deal in pressure situations, the more you deal with adversity, the better you get at it. I think you get used to it. Our players did a really good job of that this year.”Aside from grappling with the ups and downs of the season, this year’s team has a greater wealth of big-game experience, including that of Travis St. Denis, who was a key second-line player alongside Jeremy Langlois and Jordan Samuels-Thomas in 2013.St. Denis will be the player with the most game experience in Tampa, playing 160 games in his career going into the weekend. He is trailed by Denver’s Nolan Zajac with 159 games, North Dakota’s Drake Caggiula with 150 and Boston College’s Teddy Doherty at 153.”I’ve been lucky enough to play that many games, that’s for sure. It’s always nice having the experience and kind of rubbing it off on the younger guys who haven’t had that much experience,” St. Denis said. “I know the younger guys trust the older guys, and that’s kind of a huge thing going into tournaments like this where we can settle them down if they’re all amped up about the big regionals or the big stage.”For Pecknold, having senior leadership with tournament experience under their belts translates well to a control and poise among his team, which includes nine underclassmen.”Our leadership group … our captains, and then there’s another nucleus of kids has been just phenomenal this year. It really makes our job as a coaching staff a lot easier,” Pecknold said. “There’s certainly things we need to handle and things we need to deal with and motivate, stuff like that, but they reinforce what we want to do.”Like that 2013 team, Quinnipiac is riding the hot hand with goaltending with Eric Hartzell’s successor Michael Garteig between the pipes. Garteig backstopped the Bobcats’ regional title in Albany, allowing one goal in each game.”He’s been lights-out here on our run,” Pecknold said. “His battle mode … it’s infectious for our players. It’s very unusual for a goalie, and he’s not a verbal leader but he gives you that kind of compete level. I think our players feed off of him, they feed off that battle. Guys on the bench get fired up when he makes a big save or he’s just battling.”For the six members of the senior class, including St. Denis, Garteig and captain Soren Jonzzon, playing in the Frozen Four gives the opportunity for one thing: redemption.”It’s an exciting feeling,” St. Denis said. “That last one wasn’t that fun for me, losing in the finals, but to get another opportunity is something I’ve been looking for the past three years. I’m glad I got one last shot at it.”