Pete’s pond: No. 5 Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey leapfrogs No. 6 North Dakota in USCHO poll after weekend split

Peter Piekarski, Associate Sports Editor

Forwards Ethan de Jong (senior) and Oliver Chau (graduate student) combined for three goals and four assists this weekend against North Dakota. Photo from Connor Lawless

How fun was that?

After 601 days, the People’s United Center finally held a full arena of crazed and deprived hockey fans. Not only that, but a top 10 matchup between No. 6 North Dakota and then-No. 7 Quinnipiac added to the excitement.

“These are some of the best fans in the country,” captain and senior forward Wyatt Bongiovanni said. “A lot of these guys have never seen a packed building before. It was really special and for it to be 600 days since the last time, it’s really refreshing.”

As anticipated, the weekend ended in a split, which benefits both sides mutually. There was no doubt in my mind that Quinnipiac would win Friday night’s matchup in the season’s home opener, which provided a heightened sense of normalcy to the school and community attending.

On the other end, I fully expected North Dakota to storm out of the gates Saturday and take the win. Phil Giubileo, the play-by-play commentator for Quinnipiac men’s and women’s ice hockey on ESPN+, noted in the pregame that North Dakota does not lose two games in a row frequently.

“The last time they dropped two in a row was back in the 2019 quarterfinals against the University of Denver in the NCHC tournament,” Giubileo said.

However, only one prediction ended up being true. Quinnipiac dominated both games. The only difference is that the Bobcats failed to convert on numerous high-danger scoring chances Saturday night, whereas, in the previous game, Quinnipiac pounced on rebounds and capitalized on the power play.

“I thought we had some looks tonight where we had guys open off the back post and we didn’t make the play, we shot it into somebody’s shin pads,” Pecknold said. “That was disappointing. We had our chances on the power play and we just didn’t execute. We’ll keep working on it. It’s a work in progress.”

Watching the Bobcats from the student section, trying to analyze them as if I was sitting in the press box or watching the stream, provided a unique perspective on the team’s style of play.

The Bobcats play relentlessly on the forecheck. The pressure they’ve created this season versus last season is so much more distinguished and intense. It speaks volumes about how committed this team is to its one main goal: reaching the Frozen Four.

“We’ve got an unbelievable team here,” graduate student forward Oliver Chau said. “We have really good depth up front, on the back end and in net. Before you start playing games you kind of never know what you’ve got. As we’ve kicked off the season here it’s been awesome to watch every line, every (defensive) pairing and every goalie has been lights out. Let’s just keep it going.”

Additionally, the men’s ice hockey team’s play as of late is a testament to how prepared it is under head coach Rand Pecknold. The most recent USCHO poll supports this as Quinnipiac moved ahead of North Dakota despite the split series, with the Bobcats sitting pretty at No. 5.

The physicality in both games provided a playoff-like atmosphere and ramped up the level of intensity. On Friday, big hits were being thrown the entire game, but Saturday showcased more hatred after the whistle. Scrums and battles in the crease occurred throughout Saturday’s matchup.

The fans’ and the players’ energy fed off of each other and added to the excitement for the crowd.

“There’s nothing like stepping out and seeing all the yellow towels going around,” senior defenseman and assistant captain Zach Metsa said. “Having energy back in the building is the big thing, it’s unbelievable. We’re lucky to have the rink and the support that we get. I’ll never take that for granted.”

Even though Quinnipiac did not secure the sweep against North Dakota, there are plenty of positives to take away from both games.

Other than the forecheck, the best aspect of the Bobcats’ game was limiting defensive zone time and suppressing the Fighting Hawks’ shots by blocking 23 attempts and only allowing 35 pucks to reach the goal crease.

North Dakota averaged 29 shots per game entering the weekend against Quinnipiac. The Fighting Hawks did not even reach 20 shots on goal in either game.

At the other end of the rink, Quinnipiac continued to pepper the opposing goaltender with shots. The quality of those shots taken also stands out for how efficient the Bobcats are playing.

They generated shots on the rush, creating lanes from the point while others provided a screen on the goaltender, along with several opportunities from around the slot caused by Quinnipiac takeaways.

“We’ve proven even without the power play that we’re a top five team,” Metsa said. “We can play with anybody.”

Furthermore, the Bobcats’ ability to cycle the puck and collect rebounds to create more scoring chances is arguably the best in the nation.

However, one question remains for this Bobcats team: who is the starting goaltender?

Through five games, respective graduate student and sophomore goaltenders, Dylan St. Cyr and Yaniv Perets, have split starts, and it doesn’t seem like either are the clear-cut starter.

Multiple scrums unfolded on the ice during Quinnipiac’s 3-1 loss to North Dakota on Saturday. Photo from Connor Lawless

Even though Perets’ stats are better than St. Cyr to this point, both goaltenders have been solid between the pipes.

Saturday night’s loss does not change the outlook on St. Cyr. He misplayed one puck, had a strange goal get pushed in and on the third goal, blown coverage led to a wide-open one-time shot. Even though the stat line looks weak, his play certainly was better than the outcome.

Perets, on the other hand, looks sturdy in the net through his first three games. However, he’s only faced 54 total shots in those games. Until Perets gets tested further and proves that he can survive a game where he gets bombarded with shots, it doesn’t seem likely for him to take over that starting role.

In the meantime, it seems that Pecknold will return to the 2018-19 two-goaltender tandem until one outplays the other to become the starter. It’s a good problem to have, especially with one of the goaltenders being only a sophomore.

Coming up for Quinnipiac, following an Oct. 26 game hosting Holy Cross, the Bobcats will play a home-and-home set against AIC Oct. 29-30.

“They’re going to play hard,” Pecknold said. “They’ll be excited to play us. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to respect that. Anybody can beat anybody. We’ve already seen it this year, there’s already been some huge upsets early in the season. This will be a good mental test for us.”