Tampa, Fla. -- A pair of rookie defensemen will have a big impact in Thursday's first semifinal at the Frozen Four.
Boston College's Casey Fitzgerald and Quinnipiac's Chase Priskie have been key contributors for their respective teams that will meet at Amalie Arena with a chance to earn a spot in Saturday's national championship game.
There are many similarities between the two offensive-minded defensemen. Both were highly touted high school or prep players who had to battle through some adversity before eventually landing at their respective schools. Both are great skaters who will log plenty of minutes Thursday night. Both, tied for second nationally among freshman defensemen, will likely be paired with juniors who are NHL Draft picks.
Fitzgerald's hockey pedigree is no secret. He's the son of former NHLer and current New Jersey Devils Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald. His older brother, Ryan, is a junior and BC's leading scorer. His cousins are Kevin and Jimmy Hayes and Matt, Brady and Keith Tkachuk.
He committed to BC out of Malden Catholic, a perennial high school hockey powerhouse in Massachusetts. The North Reading, Mass. native left schoolboy hockey to head out to the U.S. NTDP where he struggled to find his groove and was buried on the depth chart of the talent-laden squad.
"Casey was a little under-recruited. He played for the NTDP. There were five or six defensemen statistically rated ahead of him, but we saw something in Casey when he played at Malden Catholic. We really thought he could be a special player," said BC coach Jerry York.
"'He's gone through the NTDP and he's learned some lessons. Now it's coming to fruition, what we thought we saw of him at Malden Catholic," York added.
Fitzgerald has always been known for his skating acumen, his ability to think the game and his impact on the transition, but some of that skill set had to be found again this season.
"He's a dynamic skater. He's a very intelligent player, hockey-wise. His competitive level is off the charts," said York.
He's had the benefit of playing alongside BC junior and Florida Panthers prospect Ian McCoshen, one of the most pro-ready blue liners in all of college hockey.
"That's been key. Ian has been a terrific mentor for Casey. He's a junior, he's been through the wars. He's kind of nurtured Casey," York explained. "Casey has really come into his own this year and Ian has helped him with that."
Fitzgerald was passed over in last summer's NHL Draft, but is once again ranked by NHL Central Scouting. Don't expect that to happen again this year. Fitzgerald will almost certainly hear his name called at the draft in Buffalo.
Priskie verbally committed to play at Quinnipiac during his senior year at South Kent, playing for the school's Selects Hockey Academy 18U team. He played three games with Fargo Force that season, but ultimately ended up in the BCHL with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks for the 2014-15 season.
If there was one glaring weakness or need for improvement in Priskie's skill set it was his lack of strength. The Quinnipiac staff brought him in for summer classes, which allowed him to gain muscle mass and transition to college without all the distractions come September.
"The smartest thing he did, or we did with him, is we had him enroll in the summer and take classes. Once you do that, you have access to our strength coaches. He got stronger so he had four months of that before starting. That really helped him. That gave him a lot of confidence. It also integrated him into our culture quicker so he felt more comfortable," said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold.
Now, in his third year of draft eligibility, there is the thought that Priskie will be selected in June's NHL Draft. He's a smooth-skating defenseman who has had a positive impact on Quinnipiac's transition game and ability to maintain puck possession.
"Chase had a great year. He's been dominant. The way he plays is how we want our 'D' to play. We want to get our 'D' in the rush. We want to create that second wave, that third wave of attack. If there's no opportunity offensively, they've created good gap. They're up in the play and now the gap is going the other way," Pecknold explained.
Unlike Fitzgerald, Priskie has not had a consistent partner on the blue line this season, but he has played the last three games with Arizona Coyotes prospect Connor Clifton.
"Chase is perfect for our system. He's a great hockey player, a great kid, and a straight A student," said Pecknold.
It's not a stretch to say that Priskie or Fitzgerald will have an immediate impact on the outcome of Thursday's semifinal. Just look back to the Northeast Regional where Fitzgerald assisted on both game-winning goals.
Chase Priskie (13) - Photo Credit: Matt Dewkett