Quinnipiac Blue Line Quietly Dominates
Strong Bobcats Defense Ranks First in the Nation
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
PITTSBURGH Hobey Hat Trick finalist Eric Hartzell has grown accustomed to being in the spotlight. Top forwards Connor and Kellen Jones, Matthew Peca, Jeremy Langlois and Jordan Samuels-Thomas have all had their turns as well. But the group that consistently manages to avoid the spotlight is Quinnipiac's defensive corps, which is arguably the best in the country. And they're perfectly OK with that.
"I think our d-men love flying under the radar," said senior Zach Davies. "If we're not noticed, it's a good thing. That means we haven't done anything bad. Our group has some running jokes about how there's no D on this team, but we love flying under the radar. We just go about our business, get the job done, and get out of there."
The numbers speak for themselves. The Bobcats lead the country in team defense with a 1.62 goals against average, and their 90.9-percent penalty kill is also tops in the nation. Hartzell's consistently great play in net obviously has a lot to do with that, but so does the fact that the group in front of him allows fewer than 24 shots on goal per game. That, too, ranks first nationally.
Part of what makes Quinnipiac's defensemen so successful is simply how much experience they have. Davies, Zack Currie, Mike Dalhuisen and Loren Barron are all seniors, and all four of them have played more than 140 collegiate games. Zach Tolkinen is a junior who has played nearly 100.
As the team captain, Currie is the leader of the group, but he has plenty of help in that department. He said anyone can speak up at any time, and that they all hold each other accountable.
"That was huge for me at the start," Currie said of having other seniors he can turn to. "It was an honor to be given the C on a team like this, but a big part of my leadership was understanding that we have a lot of leaders on this team. It certainly wasn't going to be all me. I think it's been that way all year. We kind of lead by committee, and it's really worked out."
That experience and leadership allows the Bobcats to adapt in tough situations. On Thursday, St. Cloud State showed them a power-play look they hadn't really seen before. On top of that, the Bobcats weren't used to defending the larger offensive zone used in NHL buildings.
They struggled on their first couple penalty kills, as the Huskies generated several quality scoring chances, including a Drew LeBlanc shot that hit the post. But once the Bobcats made a couple adjustments, they were able to keep the St. Cloud power play on the perimeter and prevent them from getting second chances.
"You can't substitute for game savvy," said coach Rand Pecknold. "They deal with adversity well. They deal with adapting within the game. Like last night, St. Cloud was running a little variation of a power play we haven't seen a lot this year. ... We did a nice job of adapting, and that's something that's hard to teach freshmen."
The Bobcats don't have any great offensive defensemen — Dalhuisen and Barron have the most points with 16 apiece — but they're not really a pack-it-in group either. They like to attack the puck and take away time and space. They're not the hardest-hitting team, but they're strong enough to win 1-on-1 battles and prevent opponents from getting lengthy offensive-zone possessions.
While the five upperclassmen on the blue line have honed their skills over several years, the sixth member of the group made a big jump in just one year. Danny Federico played just 16 games as a freshman last year, but this season he has emerged as a stay-at-home stalwart.
"He lost a lot of weight, got a lot leaner in the offseason," Davies said of Federico. "He's been quicker. He's incredibly efficient. He's smart. He plays within his means. He just makes good plays with the puck. He never tries to do too much. He's not a real offensive guy. He's a stay-at-home defenseman and he knows that. He plays that role exceptionally well."
The combination of all of this — the experience, the emergence of a guy like Federico, a system that plays to everyone's strengths, a great goalie behind them, and forwards who are strong on the backcheck — has created what Currie called "a perfect storm."
"Obviously the experience, that we've played together for so long, is a big part of it," Currie said. "But we have a lot of forwards that kick into our defense. Obviously our system has been working for us. We're a high-octane, high-pressure defense. I think it's all just together. The age, the experience and the systems, it all just came together at the right time."
If it comes together again on Saturday night, the Bobcats could find themselves hoisting the national championship trophy for the first time.