NCAA Frozen Four: Can Quinnipiac continue dominance over Yale to win national title?

PITTSBURGH — Regardless of what happens in the NCAA national title game between Quinnipiac and Yale Saturday night, the ECAC is going to be home to the national champion for the first time since 1989. Seven players in the game were alive to have seen Harvard win that title — six of them play for Quinnipiac.

But what actually happens in the game is anyone’s guess. For one thing, and I have no way of checking this for sure, I believe this is probably the first time the NCAA national title game was a rematch of the ECAC consolation game, as both Yale and Quinnipiac crashed out in the semis following shutouts that probably shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

For another, this is perhaps the least-likely title game of all time. While Quinnipiac was the first overall seed in the tournament and played its regional’s Nos. 4 and 3 teams en route to Pittsburgh, then put down another upstart No. 4 in St. Cloud on Thursday, Yale is likewise a No. 4 that has been playing like anything but. Its path to the Frozen Four finale ran through No. 2 overall Minnesota, No. 8 North Dakota, and No. 3 UMass Lowell. The first and third of those went to overtime. Consequently, if the Bulldogs were to pull off this win, it would have knocked off the top-3 seeds in the tournament, and played the toughest possible path they could have en route to the title.

So with this having already been called perhaps the most unpredictable NCAA tournament in history, it’s only fitting that in a game between the No. 1 overall seed and the No. 15 that only backed in once someone else lost, it’s almost impossible to make a reasonable guess at who will win the title tonight.

Five reasons Quinnipiac could win

1. They can end a game in the blink of an eye

Something the Bobcats have done with a scary aplomb over the course of this tournament is turn tense situations into assured leads whenever it suits their needs to do so. For example, they trailed 3-1 midway through third period against lowly Canisius, an ignoble position for the top team in the country. In the next 2:42, they tied it up, then scored the game-winner less than three minutes after that, and the Golden Griffins were all looking around like they couldn’t believe what just happened.

Same goes for the regional final against league foe Union, when a tightly-contested opening half of the first period went from a goalless draw to a three-goal Dutchmen deficit in the space of 3:12. They then scored two more goals 4:20 apart in the second period to make it a five-goal forgone conclusion. And finally, on Thursday, St. Cloud conceded three bad goals in the first 11:19 and that was, for all intents and purposes, the end of that game as well.

So not only can they put together a quick-strike offense, they can do it consistently.

2. So much experience

In all, the Q has 11 seniors in the lineup on any given night, and as you might expect, they all play fairly important roles, and they all contribute at a pretty high level. The only senior on the roster that hasn’t gotten into at least 32 of Quinnipiac’s 42 games this year is backup goaltender Reese Rolheiser.

And as noted above, these are also rather old seniors, farther along in their development paths than most other guys on Yale. Six Bobcats are at least old enough to have been alive for Harvard’s national title 24 years ago, and senior forward Kevin Bui is going to turn 26 in a little more than a week. Yale, by contrast, has just one guy north of 24 (senior captain Andrew Miller) and just five seniors playing on a nightly basis.

3. Defense wins championships

The Bobcats’ senior depth is mainly concentrated in goal (Eric Hartzell), on its blue line (five of six everyday D-men), and in the lower ranks of its forward lines, and that’s certainly reflected in the fact that they’re almost impossible to score on.

They’ve allowed just 68 goals in 42 games this season, good for first in the country and just 1.62 per game. Nationwide, only Miami (73 in 42) comes close to touching that sterling mark. As a result, they enjoy the best scoring margin in the nation at plus-1.48 goals per game, tied with Minnesota.

And though they take a lot of penalties (15.8 PIMs per game, fourth in the nation), it doesn’t seem to matter much. Despite their giving opponents 175 power plays this year, they only conceded 16 goals on those chances, running their PK to 90.9 percent. They also scored four shorthanded goals, meaning that their net penalty kill differential over the course of a 42-game season was just minus-12. Mind-boggling.

4. Offensive depth

In terms of points per game, Quinnipiac’s top scorer, Jeremy Langlois, doesn’t crack the top 100 in the country. He has just 31 points in 41 games this season, but while that type of still water doesn’t necessarily inspire the fear that wilder rapids might, it nonetheless runs exceedingly deep.

Just behind Langlois, at 30 points, is Tampa Bay Lightning pick Matthew Peca. Behind him at 29 is Winnipeg Jets draftee Jordan Samuels-Thomas. And just behind him at 27 is Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Kellen Jones. And behind him, at 26, is Jones’ twin brother Connor.

So while none of these guys will necessarily be able to hurt Yale in a way that, say, Ben Hanowski or Drew LeBlanc might have in theory, they can nonetheless do it by committee. And death by a thousand cuts is just as deadly as decapitation.

5. They just don’t lose against good teams

Perhaps the biggest knock on Quinnipiac heading into this tournament was that it had a tendency to get knocked off by some very bad teams, and that gave many pundits, myself included, pause when thinking they could run up against as many as four actual quality teams in the NCAA tournament.

On the other hand, they’re still undefeated against teams ranked in the top 20 (15-0), and that might be the biggest debit on Yale’s account. The Bulldogs are, despite their only so-so record as national championship game participants tend to go, a good, nationally-ranked team.

Quinnipiac just gets up for the big games. This is the biggest game in program history.

Five reasons Yale might pull this off

1. The Bulldogs are brave little tailors

Again, this might have been the hardest path to a national title game in NCAA history. Drawing the Nos. 2, 8, 3 and now 1 teams in the tournament would be a tall order for anyone, let alone a team that had just 18 wins and a negative conference goal differential entering the tournament.

Not that it’s mattered. Despite things getting occasionally nervy in the overtime wins against Minnesota and Lowell, Yale has also dominated its last two games, at least in terms of possession if not on the scoreboard throughout. The Bulldogs’ last two games have seen them outshoot opponents 86-43, and only once did it allow either NoDak or the River Hawks to crack a double-digit shot total in any period (the second against Lowell, when it conceded 10, including two goals).

Quinnipiac is of course the biggest giant the Bulldogs will play this year, but one thing they’ve done in all three of their NCAA games, which they didn’t do in the ECAC tournament shutout losses, is dictate everything. Minnesota and Lowell were frankly lucky to escape the beatings administered by Yale with overtime losses. It’s not inconceivable the Bobcats suffer the same fate.

2. The top line is incredible

Like Quinnipiac, Yale doesn’t exactly have the most dazzling offensive numbers (just 103 goals scored in 36 games this year). But unlike Quinnipiac, their top line is a handful for anyone. Kenny Agostino, Andrew Miller, and Jesse Root have combined for five goals and nine points in Yale’s three NCAA games so far. That’s half of the Bulldogs’ goal output in the tournament, and obviously a big reason for the team’s success.

But more importantly, those are the three guys coach Keith Allain turns to when he needs a big goal; Root had the game-winners against Minnesota (in overtime, on an amazing forecheck and pass from Agostino) and North Dakota, and Miller blew a defenseman’s doors off at the blue line, then beat the best goalie in the country five-hole for the overtime game-winner against Lowell.

That’s big-time stuff, and if this national title game comes down to any one matchup, these three against the staunch defensive performances turned out by Quinnipiac with regularity is it.

3. They can take any team off its game

This is pertinent to No. 1 as well, but the old trope from hockey players about just sticking to your game plan and doing your job is just about impossible against Yale. Lowell learned this the hard way on Thursday.

The River Hawks were generally in the business of transitioning against everyone; they didn’t do that with any success against Yale. The River Hawks were generally in the business of keeping everything to the outside; they were routinely flummoxed in their attempts to do so against Yale. The River Hawks were generally in the business of pinning the puck in their attacking zone and being hard around the net; they didn’t get close against Yale.

So it was with North Dakota. So it was, though to a lesser extent, against Minnesota. There might be no team better at adhering to its systems than Quinnipiac, so this won’t be the easiest test to pass, even leaving aside that this is the biggest stage in the sport. Lately it seems that if anyone can do it, it’s Yale.

4. Bulldogs don’t quit

Not that North Dakota proved the stiffest competition against Yale in this tournament, but the two games it played that went to overtime could have very easily bounced against it.

Against both Minnesota and Lowell, two immensely more talented teams with better pedigrees this season, and from better leagues, Yale jumped out to two-goal leads. Both were also erased in short order. None of it ended up mattering.

The Elis took a two-goal lead into the third period against the Gophers, but blew it when Nate Schmidt and Zach Budish scored about five and a half minutes apart in the third. They also led Lowell 2-0 behind a pair first-period goals in the semifinal, and Lowell erased that deficit in just 14 seconds.

It would have been easy for Yale to hang its head at that point, and certainly the feeling in the building must have been that while it had been cute for a No. 15 seed to have held a two-goal lead, it was time for their coaches to stop winking and start engineering comebacks.

Those comebacks never came. In both cases, Yale quickly regained its composure and started running the games again, then won both 3-2 in OT.

It’s living on the edge, for sure, but in a worst-case scenario the Bulldogs only have to do it one more time.

5. Do you know how hard it is to beat a team four times in a row?

This will be the fourth meeting between these teams this season, and the Q has won all of the previous ones in routs (6-2, 4-1, 3-0). The old maxim in college hockey is that it’s almost impossible to beat a team four times in a season. Sweeping them, consequently, is even more rare.

Only a small number of NCAA tournament teams succeeded in winning four games against the same team this year. Lowell did it, sweeping BU in the regular season and then beating them again in the Hockey East title game. Quinnipiac did it to Cornell, going 4-1. Minnesota did it to Bemidji State with four straight wins in mid-March. Notre Dame did it to Bowling Green. (These are all No. 1 seeds.) Boston College did it to Vermont in five games, as did North Dakota with Michigan Tech. Yale, interestingly, swept St. Lawrence.

With the exception of Lowell sweeping BU in four games, you’ll notice that none of the teams handed four losses by one team this year was particularly good (and in BU’s case, it’s debatable). For Quinnipiac to do it to Yale would be the most impressive such performance by anyone this season.

Okay, so…

Prediction time, I guess. I don’t relish having to choose between these two teams, but it’s hard to pick against their brief history, and it’s also important to note Yale hasn’t beaten the Q since Feb. 18, 2011, which was a while ago at this point.

Both certainly have it in their power to win, and you get the feeling Quinnipiac will either win by a lot (again) or Yale will squeak out a tight result against an excellent team (again). I just keep coming back to the Bobcats winning all 15 games against Top-20 competition this year. It’s hard to see that run ending Saturday night. But not that hard.

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