The End of the Beginning
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
When the MAAC was forming, back in 1997, Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald was a spearhead for its creation. He then sought out a key role in the college hockey community, earning a place on the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Committee.
Meanwhile, his team was tearing up the MAAC. With an NCAA automatic bid on the horizon, Quinnipiac figured the conference's first-ever berth was rightfully its, and it was only a matter of time before the Braves were representing their new conference nationally.
Even after losing in the semifinals of the first two MAAC tournaments — both times finishing the regular season in first place — the Braves figured they would rise to the occasion this year with the NCAA bid on the line.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans often go awry; a funny thing happened on the way to the forum; and all those other cliches.
By last Saturday afternoon, it was Mercyhurst that pulled out a 6-5 win in the MAAC tournament championship game, and left Quinnipiac left to wonder where it all went wrong.
"I don't think the way we played, we deserved to win," said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. "Our focal point the whole season was to play defense. You don't give up six goals in the championship game and expect to win."
Indeed, Quinnipiac, a run-and-gun team over the past couple years, clamped down defensively this season. With so much at stake this year, the Braves knew that was a necessity. For most of the season, they did it effectively, and it didn't hurt to have freshman Justin Eddy — who stopped 58 shots in a 1-1 tie with St. Lawrence early in the season — between the pipes.
Something else that hurt Quinnipiac in past seasons was bad penalties, and that trend continued this year. The Braves took over 90 minutes in penalties in a 6-0 loss to Mercyhurst in January, a game in which Pecknold got ejected, and were second in the conference with over 21 minutes in penalties per game. It cost them in the semifinal game of the league tournament two years in a row.
Coming into Saturday's championship, Pecknold urged his team to stay away from bad penalties.
This was the best four years of my life, the time I spent on the ice with these players and coaches. ... The proudest part is being with all these guys. They make everything special. I wish them the best. I want to read about them in the paper, I want to see them on TV.
Quinnipiac senior Anthony DiPalma
But, in the end, for all the wonderful senior leadership, and the great success story the program had written, the past came back to haunt them.
"I'm more disappointed with how my guys played than actually losing the game," Pecknold said. "The sixth goal, we had both 'D' go to the corner, and it was just a terrible play. Our entire focus was to not let that happen, and we did."
Players from many of the so-called "Big Four" conferences do not realistically have a chance at the NCAA tournament. Perhaps a team like Ferris State, Alaska-Anchorage or Vermont is better, all things considered, than any MAAC team. But those teams had no realistic shot.
Quinnipiac's chance was quite real.
"We were close for a few years, and we thought this year should've been our year," said junior forward Ryan Olson. "It would've been the icing on the cake."
Those seniors, like Chris Cerrella, Shawn Mansoff, Anthony DiPalma, Jed Holtzman and Chad Poliquin, won't get another chance at it. They know their chance at glory, at recognition, slipped away.
"Playoff hockey is different hockey. It doesn't matter, you can be the 10th seed, eighth seed, you can beat the No. 1 team," said Cerrella. "It doesn't really matter who's predicted to win. If you play hard in the playoffs and the bounces go your way, you win a game. And it's only a one-game format. So you have one bad [game], like we had tonight, and we're out."
This was to be their tournament. An up-and-down regular season didn't matter, because the brass ring was there to be had at the end. But Pecknold had a hard time reversing past indiscretions.
"We had an up and down year, so nothing was certain," Pecknold said. "Even going into the tournament against Army ... I was worried about how well we play team defense and I was worried about our penalties.
"Our objectives were the same before Army, before Iona and before Mercyhurst, and we really only executed once out of the three, against Iona, and we really got lucky to win against Army in overtime — we took a couple of bad penalties in that game.
"There's no doubt we're a great team, but we've been a great regular-season team. And we haven't been able to get over that hump to become a great playoff team. And great playoff teams play great defense. And we do it sporadically, we don't do it every night."
For all the gloom and doom and lost opportunity, however, the seniors can leave with theirs heads high. They came in as borderline Division I players that few others wanted, and helped build a program more or less from scratch. They leave behind a legacy that may be looked back upon one day as the start of something bigger.
"I have no regrets in the last four years," said Cerrella. "The last four years I had here were unbelievable. I owe it all to coach Pecknold and Jack McDonald. I had nowhere else to go and they took a shot at me. I was a bubble D-I player, and I got a scholarship and it turned out well for me. It's been a great four years."
An emotional DiPalma spoke after Saturday's loss about the impact of his four years.
"This was the best four years of my life, the time I spent on the ice with these players and coaches," DiPalma said. "The proudest part is being with all these guys. They make everything special. I wish them the best. I want to read about them in the paper, I want to see them on TV."
He, too, came to the school to help build something, and was excited when the MAAC received the automatic bid.
"That was big. You finally feel like you're a D-I team," he said.
Olson gets one more crack at it. Despite the disappointment, he's excited for the league and the team.
"It's good to be part of. The MAAC is growing, and it's going to become a tough Division I hockey league," he said.
Olson, one of the few Canadians on the Quinnipiac roster, is spreading the gospel back home in Alberta.
"That's how we got [freshman defenseman Wade] Winkler. I played two years with him in the British Columbia league. I talked to him and said, 'Come out here and play, we're starting something new.' It's gonna keep happening.
"The whole program's gonna get better, the whole league's gonna get better, and it's going to be nice to see in the future."
Now that's how it's supposed to be.