December 4, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Quinnipiac's Young Defense Making Quick Strides

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Connor Clifton is Quinnipiac's only freshman defenseman to play in every game this season.

Connor Clifton is Quinnipiac's only freshman defenseman to play in every game this season.

After Quinnipiac's historic run to the national championship game last season, conventional wisdom held that the Bobcats would take a step back in 2013-14, with four senior defensemen and a Hobey Baker award finalist goaltender all graduating.

But the conventional is not always wise.

While there's a long way to go this season, Quinnipiac — currently 13-2-2 and atop the ECAC again — has not seemed to lose a step, and that's with three freshmen playing defense regularly, rotating as many as five in, and with Michael Garteig now ensconced as the No. 1 goaltender. No doubt all of those players had strong backgrounds, but doing it right away in college is another story.

There are a few secrets to Quinnipiac's sustained success this season.

For one, many believed Garteig to be an excellent goaltender in waiting, and he's proving that to be true. That again helps cover for rookie mistakes.

Next, the returning group of forwards is so good, that the Bobcats possess the puck in the offensive zone — a lot. This keeps the pressure off the young defense.

"It's not because we play prevent defense. We play offense," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. "We have the puck a lot. ... Our forwards, they make us go, no question."

Said freshman defenseman Devon Toews, "It helps us when we get in our zone, we have a little more stamina to get the puck out."

The forwards also help the young defense learn more quickly, because they don't face a better group of forwards all season than they do in practice.

"Especially the way Rand preaches practice," Toews said. "He preaches tempo. So playing against the forwards we've got, they just battle hard. It makes it tough on us in practice, which makes it easier in games, especially when we play certain teams that might not have the skill we have up front."

But perhaps most important has been the role of senior captain Cory Hibbeler. Hibbeler, a third-line center on most nights, has stepped in to play defense when necessary, including a lot of penalty kill time. It's a position he played throughout his career until he was tried at forward his second year in junior at Omaha of the USHL.

"(My junior coach) thought I had decent hands," Hibbeler said. "He thought I would adapt better, be a grinder. That's kind of what I came into Quinnipiac as."

He's played here and there on defense for the Bobcats prior to this season, but mostly ingratiated himself slowly and surely into the lineup as an energy player. This year, he's an integral piece both offensively and defensively, although flipping back and forth takes some getting used to.

"All four guys have to work as a unit, so it's not as much of a change as I expected," Hibbeler said of his PK work. "But it's definitely a learning curve to hop back on the blue line and see the game from that perspective. ... It's not easy every game, especially when things are going well at forward and I'm not expecting it. But I'm starting to expect it every game, so I'm getting better at it.

"There's been quite a few games where the freshmen 'D' have played lights out and I haven't needed to go back. Our freshmen 'D' have made strides. I expect to go back there less and less, but I have to be ready for it."

Pecknold said Hibbeler gets pressed into service on a game-by-game basis, based on his feel for how things are going.

"If we have a game like the Harvard game (a 3-2 win in mid-November), we had quite a few defensemen that weren't ready to play," Pecknold said. "So he just weathered the storm for us until we could get those guys back to where we needed them to be. And that's what can happen with freshmen 'D.' Freshmen forwards, they make mistkaes, it doesn't hurt you as much. D and goalies, it hurts you."
As the season goes on, and the freshmen become more and more comfortable as a group, expect Hibbeler's time in the back to be reduced. Hibbeler believes that day is coming.

"We've got a great defensive coach in Reid Cashman, he's done wonders with the guys and they all respect them," Hibbeler said. "And Rand works extra with them before practice. So it's been a team effort to get them up to speed."

Last but not least, this group of freshmen is just really talented, and has exhibited many flashes of what's to come. Stepping in and playing well as freshmen is more and more common in college hockey these days. Certainly, it's harder for defensemen, but Boston College has rotated in a new crop of backliners and hardly lost anything.

"They've done a good job," Pecknold said. "Toews has been great, the others kids are coming along well. They're buying into our system. They still lack the game experience. That's coming."

Connor Clifton, brother of fellow freshman Tim Clifton, a forward, came from the U.S. National Development Team, so was used to playing against college players. He is the only one of the group to play all 17 games so far, with Toews and Derek Smith having played 14.

"He plays big and he hits hard, and he has an edge to him," Pecknold said. "We need a little bit of that. He's been better toning it down a bit."

At 5-foot-11, Clifton doesn't back down to anyone. But at times, he's gotten overzealous, and he leads the team with 50 penalty minutes, although 34 of those came in two games.

"It's definitely frustrating," Clifton said. "I have been watching it.

"I am not too big, but it doesn't stop me from going after the big guy. ... But practices are intense, so that gets us ready. We have the best forwards. We face it all in practice."

Toews and Smith are also 5-11, while Joe Fiala, who has played 10 games, is the biggest at 6-foot-2. Brayden Sherbinin, who has appeared in six games, and scored a goal on his first collegiate shot, is 6-1.

"They like how I've been playing the way I am and the size I am," said Toews, who has been the best puck mover of the group so far. "In the summer, for myself, I want to bulk up so I can play a little tougher, more physical, but during the season, the coaches seem fine with the way I'm playing."

In many ways, there was a lot of pressure on this defense corps, even with having all of that upperclassmen experience in front of them. They were stepping into a team that was so good up front, and coming off such a good season last year, that all eyes were on them to see if they'd be good enough to help Quinnipiac compete for another championship.

"Once I've gotten used to it, through practice, and coach has been preaching it on us, it's helped. I feel very comfortable in the system right now," Toews said. "Just getting to konw where the guys arae going to be. Playing in Surrey (BCHL) last year, going on our long (playoff) run, you get used to playing with certain players. Being here, you have to get used to where players like to be and what they like to do."

The coach also relies upon the leaders, like Hibbeler, to show the way.

"I definitely try (to make them feel comfortable)," Hibbeler said. "We have a great bunch of guys, and leaders in the locker room besides me. But I try to pay attention — if I see a guy who seems a little loose, I try to give him a little talk or more encouragement than others. ... We come to play every game, but a few words or gestures go a long way. We have work to do, but we like where we are right now. For us, it's mental, and that's coming to play every night."

Said Clifton, "I feel real good about the season. It's a great group of guys. We're really clicking.

"The older guys are showing us the way, and we're really rolling with them. ... They weren't expecting us to be as good as we are, with so many younger guys. But I don't think it really matters."

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