This upcoming weekend, 12 seniors and graduate transfers will have one final opportunity to take another step toward their ultimate goal: winning the national championship.
The NCAA regional playoffs are set, with the Quinnipiac Bobcats (31-6-3) heading to Allentown, Pennsylvania for a nighttime showdown with the St. Cloud State Huskies (18-14-4).
Don’t let the team’s record sway you, as St. Cloud plays in the toughest conference in college hockey. The NCHC is sending five teams to the NCAA regional round this year, with St. Cloud entering as the lowest seed from the conference.
It’s quite the matchup as the two teams rank at opposite ends on special teams. St. Cloud is lethal on the power play, converting on 31.3% of its opportunities which leads Divison I. It is one of five teams in the country to score over 40 goals this season on the man advantage.
For Quinnipiac, its power play has seen better days as the Bobcats sit as the 10th-worst power-play unit in the country, converting just 14.5% of the time.
When down a skater, however, the Bobcats lead the league in efficiency, killing off 91.8% of their penalties. St. Cloud is middle of the pack on the penalty kill at 81.7%.
“Playoffs is always goaltending and special teams, so I think it’ll be huge,” Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold said. “I went through all of St. Cloud’s power-play goals, I watched them all yesterday, I watched them all again today. They are lights out on the (power play).”
Led by respective graduate student and junior forwards Kevin Fitzgerald and Jami Krannila, the Huskies offense has several weapons that can score. Seven players on the team reached double-digit goals, and three players averaged a point per game.
Graduate student goaltender David Hrenak has been inconsistent for the Huskies, as he finished with a .914 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average. It doesn’t help that he faces an erratic number of shots each night, seeing as little as 12 and as many as 49.
All five of the NCHC teams finished the season as a top-10 team in the RPI rankings, and the USCHO poll had four of the five in the top-10 with St. Cloud finishing at No. 11.
Against the four teams ahead, the Huskies went 3-7-4, finishing with a minus-11 goal differential.
“It just came out (March 20) that we’re playing them,” senior forward and captain Wyatt Bongiovanni said. “But we’re going to discuss amongst ourselves … we’re going to give ourselves the best opportunity to win and attack these guys head on. Certainly I’m sure (Oliver Chau) has some insight and experience not only playing them but beating them. We’re going to use everything we’ve got to our advantage.”
Much like the matchup with Colgate in the ECAC Hockey semifinals, Quinnipiac holds a significant advantage at even strength. The Bobcats’ goal share at even strength is second in the country only at 74.6%, outscoring its opponents 97-33. Comparatively, St. Cloud finished at 55% with 72 goals for and 59 against.
“I think a lot of it is trust in the system and trust in the process,” senior forward T.J. Friedmann said. “We’ve had a very successful year, we’ve been in the win column a lot playing off our identity.”
The aforementioned Huskies’ power play largely determines the outcome of the game. When St. Cloud wins, it scores a ridiculous 46.2% of the time. But when the Huskies lose, they score at a 14.1% rate.
St. Cloud struggled to perform in its conference, finishing 10-10-4 and losing in the quarterfinals to Minnesota-Duluth. This intertwines with the success of the power play against NCHC opponents. When the Huskies won against their conference, the power play converted on 41.5% of their chances. But when they lost to NCHC teams, the power play scored only 13.7% of the time.
Quinnipiac relies heavily on defense to collect wins, only allowing teams to reach three goals four times this season. None of its opponents have surpassed the three goal mark so far.
“Every team in college hockey can play every team in college hockey and put the puck in the back of the net,” freshman goaltender Yaniv Perets said. “I feel like it doesn’t really matter who you go up against. It’s just being ready for whatever comes your way whenever it does.”
Down the stretch, the Bobcats labored against the top teams in their conference. In its seven total games against Harvard, Clarkson and Cornell, Quinnipiac finished 1-6 with two overtime losses, one of which occurred this previous weekend in the ECAC Hockey championship.
This is now the second consecutive conference championship the Bobcats have lost in overtime by a score of 3-2 while being the No. 1 seed.
“We took a step back, kind of let the feeling sink in and realized in the grand scheme of things we’re only four wins away from a national title,” Friedmann said. “We’ve moved on, we’re ready to get the job done.”
Pending the outcome of both regional Allentown matchups, if Quinnipiac advances past St. Cloud, then the Bobcats will face the winner of Michigan and AIC on Sunday afternoon for a spot in the Frozen Four semifinals.
“We’re just going to focus on St. Cloud right now, that’s how we always operate,” Pecknold said. “It’s a short turnaround for sure, but it’s a short for them also. It’s a two-way street.”