PITTSBURGH -- The Quinnipiac Bobcats spent a pretty good chunk of the season as the No. 1 team in the nation, and even this weekend lit ooked like that rating was well deserved for about 99:56.5. Then whatever it was that had propped up their incredible success throughout this campaign vanished in the blink of an eye.
It was all so sudden. Much as they dictated the first game against St. Cloud State more or less from the outset, they did so against Yale, though obviously had far less to show for it. Jeff Malcolm spent the vast, vast majority of the first two periods bailing out his teammates as the Bobcats forwards, and particularly the line of Matthew Peca and Kellen and Connor Jones continued to press the attack. The more they pressed, and the more Malcolm made improbable saves, the sands in the hourglass appeared to be slipping not-so-slowly away. That Quinnipiac would claim its national title seemed an eventuality.
Then a bad clearing attempt in the waning seconds of the middle period changed everything. Gus Young corralled it and put it toward goal, though without a particularly impressive amount of velocity. And Clinton Bourbonais, who had been making a nuisance of himself in front of the net all weekend, dropped his stick on it just enough to redirect it through Eric Hartzell's five-hole with 3.5 left in the second period.
That was when Wile E. Coyote looked down and realized he ran out of cliff 20 feet prior. Try though Quinnipiac might, the lightning it had captured in the previous five periods couldn't be distilled again, and Yale ran the remainder of the game. Though shots were in Quinnipiac's favor in that desperate third period, only a few gave Malcolm cause for concern, but moreover, the defense and dedication to systems for which the Bobcats had become so famous entirely eluded them.
Maybe they were chasing the game. Maybe Yale was successful in doing what it did to UMass Lowell two nights earlier to unsettle the favored team's game plan. Maybe both. But whatever it was, the Bulldogs carved up the vaunted Quinnipiac defense for breaks regularly, and Hartzell conceded an horrific goal to make it 2-0. By the time Andrew Miller scored five-hole on a breakaway, the game had long since seemed over.
"I don't know if there's any one pivotal moment, but we had a ton of Grade A's in the first two periods and we just couldn't finish," said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold, who thought the second goal in particular was the killer. "Sometimes the puck just won't go in the net for you, and it's unfortunate that was one of the things tonight."
A few fits of possession in the attacking zone did nothing. Pulling the goalie with just under eight minutes to go did the same. The mystique -- and whatever allowed the Bobcats to blow out their crosstown rivals three times this season -- was gone, at the least opportune time imaginable.
Or maybe Yale coach Keith Allain had the simplest explanation imaginable: "They hadn't seen our 'A' game in the previous three games." That could be it too.
When will I see you again?
More troubling for Quinnipiac than the third period, though, is that it would appear that this was their last best hope for winning a national title for the next few years at least. As was often documented, they were extremely old, with 11 seniors playing most nights. That's what made them so good, but it's also a flaw that could keep them out of serious contention for a while.
Losing all 11 of them -- including Hartzell, top scorers Jeremy Langlois and Jordan Samuels-Thomas, and four of tonight's six defensemen -- in addition to any players who might leave early (like Peca), in one fell swoop is a huge blow. It could take Pecknold quite some time to rebuild the team to this level.
A disappointing end for Lowell
Strange though it may seem, the worst team at the Frozen Four this year was also the one that entered it as the heavy favorites. Vegas had the odds on a UMass Lowell title trot at something like 8:5 entering the weekend and every pundit from Orono to Colordo Springs figured that was just about right.
So it was a rather bad time indeed for the River Hawks to turn in what was unequivocally their worst performance of the last few months if not the entire season. They were beaten to every loose puck, forced to ice it multiple times in a row, and just seemed overwhelmed with whatever Yale presented them.
"[As] far as not having your legs tonight, there's no excuse for it," said Lowell coach Norm Bazin, whose team couldn't get anything to the net and suffered just its fifth loss in the last 29 games. "Both teams had the same amount of time off. We should have been very fresh because we have a good skating club. Like I said, we just didn't have it."
Final shots read 47-18 and that gives you a pretty good idea of how endemic Lowell's issues were up and down the roster. Just about the only River Hawk to show up for all three periods was junior Joe Pendenza, who put eight of his team's shots on net by himself, including the goal that tied the game late in the second period. It was just the second time this season Lowell was held to fewer than 20 shots on goal, the only other being a win order UMass Amherst in which it scored six times on 19 shots. There was no such efficiency of conversion in evidence this weekend.
In fact, that 14-second stretch in which Lowell scored its only two goals of the game more or less culminated its only stretch of real dominant play, which lasted all of about three or four minutes. It drew a penalty, scored almost as soon as it expired, scored again less than a quarter-minute later, then had one more extended shift in the Yale zone. In fact, that power play Lowell drew prior to its brief outburst was its only one of the game, because it's awful hard to draw penalties when you're chasing the game all night.
That it forced overtime at all is a minor miracle, but speaks to the overall quality of the team. Just a rough end to an excellent season, but that's how it went for the two teams Yale faced before this weekend as well.
Benik keeps scoring
The scoreline suggests a game that wasn't all that close, but St. Cloud State played pretty well against Quinnipiac in the semifinals, even as it lost 4-1 and trailed by three after 20 minutes.
But where the Huskies' big guns like Ben Hanowski and Drew LeBlanc were held silent, it was once again Joey Benik of all people who was the only guy to solve the Q's suffocating defense and goaltending. You'll recall that Benik, who scored three goals all season prior to the NCAA tournament, also had two goals and an assist in the first round against Notre Dame, then add two more tallies against Miami in the regional final.
Five goals and an assist in three NCAA tournament games? Coaches around the country should be trying to clone him.
It's rather a common occurrence that within hours of players having been eliminated from the Frozen Four, NHL teams start scooping up the good ones. This year was, as you'd imagine with the general quality of top-level players on the rosters for the participants, no exception.
The first two such signings came Friday evening, and in rapid succession. Calgary locked up St. Cloud State forward Ben Hanowski, acquired in the Jarome Iginla trade, and immediately had Jay Feaster vowing to work him into the team's NHL lineup at some point this season. Which, why not? They're obviously done, and this gives them a good chance to assess him up close and see what they're going to get with him in a Bob Hartley system, if only for a few games.
Just minutes later, it was announced that Hobey Baker winner and fellow St. Cloud State forward Drew LeBlanc signed a free agent deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and likewise seems destined for the NHL roster, at least for a little while. They've already assigned him the No. 14 jersey.
On Saturday, the Buffalo Sabres signed UMass Lowell defenseman and recently-named first-team All-American Chad Ruhwedel, who skipped out on his final year of eligibility and was in the Sabres lineup later that day, to a two-year deal. He's smart and skates extremely well, which is something the Sabres don't have enough of right now. Weirdly, Ron Rolston interviewed for and did not get the UMass Lowell coaching job that became Norm Bazin's two years ago.
Further, it was reported on Friday that the Canucks were sniffing around Yale's coveted, sizable free agent Antoine Laganiere, though a lot of other teams were as well. They, however, had to wait for the result of the national title game to go final before approaching him. Laganiere is an interesting case because he started the year extremely hot, scoring 23 points in his first 18 games, but then netted just five more in the final 18 ahead of the finals. However, he very much showed up in the semifinal against Lowell, scoring the second goal and generally making a menace of himself throughout. That should help his stock nearly as much as the fallow back half of the season might have hurt it.
Yale PK the difference
One of the reasons Yale was so successful in he NCAA tournament was that its penalty kill really got going after the end of February. After March 1, a PK that had been 103 of 128 (a so-so 80.5 percent) for the first several months of the season went 34 for its last 35, including 12 of 13 in the NCAA tournament.
That included going 4 for 4 in the title game after silencing Lowell on its only power play opportunity on Thursday. The title game also featured a nervy 5-on-3 that should have, in theory, given Quinnipiac its best possible chance to score, and then ultimately gave way to a two-man advantage going in Yale's favor.
"We felt pretty comfortable in the 5-on-3 kill," Allain said. "We've had a fair amount of success this year. ... Our guys were prepared and they know what to expect. They went out and executed it."
Shuttering teams as deep as Quinnipiac and Lowell and North Dakota and Minnesota obviously isn't easy, and most teams found that out the hard way this season. So how to explain such a impressive defensive effort on this grand stage.
"We rolled all four lines tonight," Allain said. "I don't have a checking line. So it was a team effort. We shut them out because everyone was involved in the process."