Pete’s pond: Quinnipiac loses ECAC Hockey championship, will face Minnesota State in NCAA regional round

Peter Piekarski, Associate Sports Editor

No. 10 Quinnipiac entered the ECAC Hockey championship game Saturday evening as the heavy favorite against St. Lawrence, but left the People’s United Center three hours later empty-handed.

The Bobcats came out flat to start the game — about as flat as a half-empty bottle of soda that hasn’t been closed in three days.

It was uninspiring hockey from a team that has its sight set on a Frozen Four appearance.

Despite the overtime loss just 24 hours prior, the NCAA handed Quinnipiac the automatic bid to the tournament after St. Lawrence’s head coach Brent Brekke tested positive for COVID-19 which forced the Saints to withdraw from the tournament. Nevertheless, Quinnipiac was very likely to receive a bid anyways due to its national rank.

The Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey team was 5-1 against St. Lawrence in the 2020-21 regular season. (Connor Lawless (2020))

However, Saturday night could be the lesson of the season for this team, a well-needed wake-up call that leads to tournament success. It’s going to all depend on how this team prepares to face No. 5 Minnesota State in the first regional round.

An interesting matchup proceeds itself as both teams failed to win its conference title. Minnesota State had been a top-five ranked team all year and entered the Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference championship as No. 3 in the country, before losing to Northern Michigan.

However, there is a major underlying issue for the Bobcats following their conference championship performance.

For a team that typically bullies opponents on the offensive end with its speed and puck control, to open a championship game with an automatic NCAA playoff bid on the line and only manage roughly four minutes of offensive possession with four shots on goal is dreadful.

“I thought our first period was junk,” head coach Rand Pecknold said. “Our guys were nervous, and we shouldn’t be. We talked all week about being confident and dealing with adversity, and I thought we stunk in the first period. Just stunk.”

Quinnipiac was 12-1-1 in the last 14 games against St. Lawrence dating back to 2016-17, including a 4-1-1 record this season. That’s pure dominance against a conference opponent. But Saturday’s game eliminated all favorite narratives.

This was Quinnipiac’s first ECAC Hockey championship appearance since its win over Harvard en route to a Frozen Four championship loss to North Dakota in 2016.

The first period was a mess. Breakouts were sloppy, passes missed targets, pucks weren’t kept in the corners to cycle and shots weren’t generated from anywhere on the ice.

The Bobcats also gave up an early goal in the period, which would mark the 10th time it’s happened this season.

During their opening power play they held the puck in the zone for about a minute and only managed to generate one shot attempt. St. Lawrence’s junior goaltender Emil Zetterquist went unchallenged for the first 20 minutes.

“We got to prepare better for games and be better in first periods and lock in on our details,” Pecknold said. “Our details were poor tonight.”

This No. 10-ranked power play in the country has struggled all season against St. Lawrence, only converting four of its 28 power plays against the Saints during the regular season for a 14.3% conversion rate. Three of four conversions occurred during the last two games they played on Feb. 26 and 27.

Note that St. Lawrence touts the third-best penalty kill in the country and had shut down Colgate’s power play all four times just two nights prior.

Even with the minute of possession, the passes remained outside of the dots and right near the blue line. The Bobcats generated nothing to force the penalty-killers to move to free up a shooting lane.

The Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey team will play Minnesota State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. (Connor Lawless (2020))

However, Quinnipiac’s second power play was even more worrisome. With only about 25 seconds of zone possession, St. Lawrence generated more offensive opportunities on two half-breakaways despite being down a skater.

Outside of the abysmal first period of play and ineffective power plays, Quinnipiac had a much stronger second period backed by goals from senior forward Odeen Tufto and junior forward Wyatt Bongiovanni just 12 seconds apart from each other.

Tufto scored from an awkward angle and caught Zetterquist by surprise with a five-hole shot. Bongiovanni, who had not played since Dec. 26, collected a cross-slot pass from sophomore forward Skyler Brind’Amour and rifled it into the top-right corner.

During the final regulation period, the teams would battle for about 16 minutes before a simple dump-in by St. Lawrence caught all five Quinnipiac skaters below the dots, four of which were below the goal line.

St. Lawrence capitalized on a rebound, sending the game to sudden death overtime.

“You have to fight through things,” Quinnipiac assistant coach Joe Dumais said. “It’s hard to get to the net. You got to be willing to sacrifice to get bodies to the net. That’s how St. Lawrence scored two goals. They put a puck to the net, they won a battle and they banged home a rebound. That wasn’t something we were able to do. We really need to learn from those mistakes we made in last night’s game.”

The Saints generated the game-winner from two things: Quinnipiac’s inability to clear the zone and its inability to dump and change. The same five skaters were caught in the zone for over two minutes.

The average shift for any skater is 30-45 seconds. This elongated period of not being able to clear the puck drained those five skaters, which sequentially led to the St. Lawrence goal.

Seven seconds after finally clearing the puck, which was just a quick chip that didn’t make it to the red line, junior forward David Jankowski had the opportunity to skate in, cut to the slot and fire an untouched wrist shot, clinching the ECAC Hockey title.

“I’m just really disappointed in our effort tonight,” Pecknold said. “I thought we had some kids that really struggled. We need to be good in big moments. We had some kids that were awesome tonight. But we had some guys that struggled in a big moment and we got to be better than that.”

There are a couple of aspects to the Bobcats’ game that need serious work if they want to be a contender in the NCAA playoffs. The first-period effort needs to be the first point of emphasis. Opponents who scored early dictated too many games this season.

Quinnipiac is 3-3-4 this season, including the overtime loss in the championship, when opponents score first in the period. It is also 1-4-4 when trailing after the first period.

That is not a successful statistic. Especially when it comes to big games.

Against ranked opponents, Quinnipiac has a minus-five first-period goal differential. Take away the eight-goal outing against AIC in December and it’s a minus-eight goal differential.

Quinnipiac has also failed to score a goal in the opening period in nine of its 19 conference games this season.

If this team comes out storming in the regional round, effectively breaking out and providing consistent pressure, then it can be a competitor. The Bobcats are 14-3-1 this season when scoring first and 9-1-0 when leading after the first period.

The first period is going to be the key to winning. Putting Minnesota State on its heels immediately will give Quinnipiac a much greater chance to advance to the next round.