Quinnipiac hockey is all about function.
Everyone does the thing they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it, pretty much all of the time. Breakdowns happen because it's hockey and no one ever plays a perfect game front-to-back. But when it worked for them tonight, it worked extremely well, and when it didn't, things got dicey but not unmanageable.
When you're as good at just about everything as Quinnipiac is, “not unmanageable” is just about all you need regardless of opponent. The Bobcats held on for a nervier-than-it-should-have-been national semifinal victory, 3-2, over a very skilled Boston College team, and advanced to the championship game on Saturday against the winner of North Dakota and Denver.
“I think in spurts we were really good,” said Quinnipiac coach and genius architect Rand Pecknold, whose team won its 32nd of 42 games tonight. “I thought we were controlling certain parts of it in the first I thought we took a bad penalty and let them back into it. I thought we took bad penalties the whole night. I'd say the two things we did poorly tonight were bad penalties and the failed clears. But other than that, the compete factor was outstanding. And that's one thing we talk a lot about. We don't have to be perfect if we're ultra competitive. And they can beat one guy, they can beat two. They can beat three. But we'll have a fourth and fifth guy there.”
There was a bit of controversy on the first Quinnipiac goal, because the play should have been whistled for offside. However, given the number of miscues the Eagles made on the play it's probably fair to call it good anyhow.A soft dump-in followed by hard pressure was inexplicably ferried aside by Thatcher Demko (27 saves in the loss) instead of swallowed for Mistake No. 1. Then Casey Fitzgerald made a weak pass to no one in particular behind the net for Mistake No. 2. It was fished out and thrown in front by Quinnipiac's Scott Davidson and onto the stick of Kevin McKernan. His low shot seemed to catch Demko off-guard somehow, because he never got the pad down for Mistake No. 3. The goal was one that's otherwise a save he makes 99 times out of 100. A baffling goal to allow just 2:31 in.
Less than five minutes later, an uncovered Andrew Tavener doubled the lead on a similarly troubling play for the Eagles. A poor clearing attempt by Michael Kim that was always destined to get picked off was, shockingly, picked off. A quick cycle later and it was in the back of the net with little resistance.
“We went to make a pass D-to-D and the puck passed him [on the first goal,” BC coach Jerry York said. “So it enabled them to get on that pass there and he turned the puck over. But just the way the puck bounced was funny. It was a fairly safe play and all of a sudden they're 1-0. And the second goal was similar. Both came off turnovers. Deep in our zone. So we've got to give credit to Quinnipiac. They forced the turnover and they scored a goal. Scored two goals there.”
These issues have not been typical of Boston College hockey all year, but they have been typical of Quinnipiac opponents. The Bobcats force you to make too many mistakes, and they suffocate you at the other end. They're a 58 percent possession team for a reason, and attempts at 5-on-5 before it was already a two-goal game were 11-2.
Officially, BC was credited with six shots on goal in the first period, but that was with the benefit of score effects and two power plays to Quinnipiac's zero. And more to the point one can't imagine where the official scorers were getting the “six” number in either event. Nonetheless, it's not like any of those six did anything to really worry Michael Garteig, as the vast majority were from well beyond 30 feet. That's scoring range for Steph Curry, but for Boston College those are always going to be little more than low-percentage shots that, at best, result in an offensive-zone faceoff.
“We want to do that to anybody, we play deny time and space,” Pecknold said. “I think you look at the talent, the firepower BC has. [they're No.] 1 or 2 in the country in terms of talent. If those kids have time they're going to make plays and we had to kind of get up in their face a little bit. We kept talking about not sitting back and prevent defense. And we did that a couple times we want to go. We want to go and really re-gap and push up and I thought we did a pretty good job for the most part on that tonight.”
The second period wasn't exactly more of the same — BC scored just 23 seconds in through Alex Tuch, for instance — but it didn't get much better for the Eagles. All year they've had a penchant for taking penalties (second-most penalty minutes in the nation this season!), which is usually fine when you're as good a penalty-killing team as they are.
However, when you're playing a team with the fourth-best power play in the nation (27.4 percent) maybe that's not such a good idea. Quinnipiac answered the BC strike just nine seconds into its first power play, and you couldn't draw one up better: Win the puck back to the point, slick pass down low, one-timer, stuff attempt, rebound, goal.
Brutal efficiency, and the Eagles were back to facing a two-goal deficit just like that, thanks to Landon Smith on the doorstep.
“[On the power play] we'll definitely be cute at times make some unbelievable times other times we're just like let's get it to the net,” Pecknold said. “I thought that's something we had to do with Demko an elite goaltender one of the best in the country. We just had to keep putting pucks on net and find ways to score rebound goals that was an ugly greasy goal at the net front and that's how you win hockey games.”
It could certainly be called ill-advised, then, for them to keep taking penalties, but they did it anyway. Three more in the period, only one of which was a matching minor that resulted in 4-on-4 play rather than another PK, though it probably should have been a major to captain Teddy Doherty for spearing.
If you asked national coach of the year Rand Pecknold if he'd prefer playing low-tempo, low-event game to trading chances with a team as talented as the Eagles, he'd almost certainly prefer to take his chances with the former. However, special teams create chaos, and 6:34 of special teams play in any period is going to bring that about pretty easily. Shots in the period ended up 15-13 to the Eagles, but you could count the number of quality chances at 5-on-5 on one hand. That would obviously be to Quinnipiac's benefit.
“We just kept hammering it, hammering it,” Pecknold said. “We didn't change anything we've done all year. The thing I've said for 42 games now is if we play to our identity we will be rewarded. That's what we said today and we were.”
The Bobcats haven't lost since late 2014 when heading into the third period with a lead, so being up two, you'd have thought they could have just thrown on the cruise control. To an extent, that seems like exactly what happened, because it turned out they needed that two-goal cushion.
While a lot of what makes Quinnipiac so successful on an ongoing basis was still present in their game, a tendency toward dumb penalties crept in as well. They have an excellent PK — third-best in the nation — but inviting BC to test it twice in the third period. And indeed, they scored late into the second one to make the game well and truly, ahem, interesting down the stretch, because a BC that's pressing is a BC that's terrifying.
“I thought the rotations were good. I thought the compete was great on the PK tonight,” Pecknold said. The willingness to block shots. Our neutral zone was really good in kind of denying them entries. The only issue we had was we lost more faceoffs than we normally do on the PK and had some failed clears where guys have to have more poise. We've got to rip that puck down and kill some time off. But again we found a way and I think our PK is better than what we showed tonight. But it was good enough.”
Thank goodness, then, for Michael Garteig (34 of 36 on the night), who made a number of high-quality saves in the dying minutes to keep the score level. The team in front of him pitched in as well, shelling up effectively enough to keep BC's high-danger opportunities limited.
“I thought they played well in the structure,” said BC defenseman Steve Santini. “And they knew who our top guys were and what we were trying to do. So we've got to give a lot of credit to Quinnipiac. They played a great game. Like you mentioned they did great in the penalty kill, and unfortunately ended our season, but that's hockey.”
The foundation of the Quinnipiac game is a tight and well-executed forecheck, and the filling of every lane with sticks, bodies, or both. They did that to perfection for most of the night, and especially when it mattered most.
Some might have discounted their chances because of BC's depth and the draft pedigree of their top performers, but Quinnipiac is a team capable of KOing literally anyone. They've been doing it for years, they've done it all season, they did it tonight.
“I just think we're looking at too much what did BC do wrong,” York said. “I think Quinnipiac played very, very well through the 60 minutes, but especially the early parts of the game.”
That's Quinnipiac hockey. And that's why they're through to the final. They do this all the time.
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