Tampa, Fla. -- For the second time in four years Quinnipiac University is heading to the Frozen Four with a chance to bring the school's first NCAA Championship back to Hamden, Conn.
The expectations are different this time, and from everything head coach Rand Pecknold has said, it appears the Bobcats are on a mission this time around. No one is just happy to be there.
How Quinnipiac is viewed nationally has also changed. It's a program that is now taken seriously. The Bobcats have won 108 games over the past four seasons, all of which ended in a trip to the national tournament. The 2015-16 Bobcats captured their third ECAC Hockey regular season title in four years and their first ever ECAC Hockey Tournament crown.
Quinnipiac has accomplished all that without a lineup full of NHL Draft picks. QU has just two compared to Boston College's 12, North Dakota's 11 or Denver's five.
Only Minnesota State had a better average shots on goal margin this season. Quinnipiac does a great job maintaining possession, maintaining layers and preventing transition and penetration. Pecknold's team has averaged nearly 35 shots on goal per game, ranking fourth nationally.
A major reason for Quinnipiac's possession success is its overall team speed, ability to track down pucks and get in on the forecheck. The team's success on face-offs has also improved as the season has moved along.
Quinnipiac will need to execute their layers and gap control to perfection this weekend. Starting with Thursday's opponent, BC, the Bobcats need to minimize offensive zone time for BC's high powered offense. Quinnipiac needs to keep the puck away from the likes of Alex Tuch, Miles Wood, Colin White and Ryan Fitzgerald.
As BC has proven time and time again this season, even when it gets outplayed, it can win games due to the ability to strike quickly. If Quinnipiac wants to win, it will need to be on top of its possession game.
2. Mobile Defense
Maintaining possession and keeping BC's highly skilled group of forwards at bay will be no easy task. The same goes for Denver and North Dakota's explosive top lines, if the Bobcats reach the final. While Quinnipiac lacks the name superstars of the other three teams here, it has three defensemen who are solid NHL prospects.
Juniors Devon Toews and Connor Clifton and freshman Chase Priskie are all mobile, puck-moving defensemen who can push the pace, impact the breakout and play solid in their own zone. Toews (New York Islanders) and Clifton (Arizona Coyotes) are NHL Draft picks while Priskie is rated by NHL Central Scouting and thought to have a good chance to be selected in June's draft.
Toews' +30 plus/minus is second among all Division I defensemen, only behind St. Cloud's Ethan Prow. He was +7 in the two games at the East Regional. Vastly underrated, he's good on gaps, has a good stick, skates well backwards and keeps the puck off the sticks of opposing forwards. Toews has seven goals and 23 assists.
Clifton has seven goals and 20 assists, including one of the highlight reel plays of the NCAA Regional weekend in which he set up a Soren Jonzzon goal with a beauty end-to-end rush. Priskie's 22 assists is tied for first nationally among rookie defensemen.
3. Winning Culture
It might sound absurd, especially given the tradition of the programs it is going up against at the Frozen Four, but Quinnipiac is used to winning. Pecknold spoke about it after his team's win in the East Regional Final. The Bobcats have lost just three times all season.
The senior class has won 108 games. Rand Pecknold's program has become the standard bearer in ECAC Hockey, a conference that is leaps and bounds better than it was a decade ago. Having confidence, a belief and a swagger can go a long way in April.
Part of that winning culture is established by players with intangibles, guys willing to go the extra mile. No player exemplifies this more than junior Tim Clifton, the older brother of defenseman Connor Clifton. Tim Clifton wins face-offs, wins battles to loose pucks, kills penalties and is responsible in all three zones.