Friday, October 1, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Quinnipiac

Our penultimate edition of "Know Your Enemy" deals with the school that will probably always be the "new kid on the block" in the ECAC, considering that every other team in the league has been playing hockey longer than they've even existed as a school.

Nickname: Bobcats
Location: Hamden, CT
Founded: 1929
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2002
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Rand Pecknold (17th season)
2009-10 Record: 20-18-2 (11-11-0, 7th place)
Series: RPI leads, 6-5-4
First Game: October 16, 1999 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: February 19, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last QU win: November 15, 2008 (Troy, NY)

2010-11 games: February 4, 2011 (Hamden, CT); February 26, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Scott Zurevinski, jr.; F Jeremy Langlois, so.; F Conor Jones, fr.; F Kellen Jones, fr.; D Zach Hansen, sr.; D Mike Glaicar, jr.; D Zach Davies, so.; D Loren Barron, so.; G Dan Clarke, jr.

Key losses: F Brandon Wong, F Eric Lampe, F Jean-Marc Beaudoin, F Greg Holt, F Mike Atkinson

Ten of the other 11 programs in the ECAC had already firmly established themselves within the league by the time the first puck dropped at the Q. The history of Quinnipiac hockey goes back only 35 years, with the 1975-76 season marking the first year of varsity hockey at what was then a small commuter college outside of New Haven. The Quinnipac College Braves started play in the ECAC's Division II conference. The Braves put together a winning season in their first year, but largely struggled through the late 70s and early 80s, putting up eight losing seasons in the following eight years.

Coach Jim Armstrong, who had been in place since 1980, brought the Braves to the peak of their D-II existence in the mid-80s. The team finished with a record of 16-9-0 in 1985, and would make their first ECAC appearances in 1986 and 1987, reaching the ECAC final in 1987, losing to Trinity and finishing with a record of 22-7-1. But from there, the Braves returned to the difficult days they'd experienced before. In Armstrong's final five years, the Braves had a combined record of 26-82-3.

When Rand Pecknold took over the Braves in 1994, he was something of a part-time coach. He spent half of his days as a high school teacher rather far from the Quinnipiac campus, and the other half overseeing midnight practices and working the phones as a recruiter. The hard work didn't pay off immediately, but over the first few years of his tenure in Hamden, the team began to turn around. By 1997, the Braves had a winning record for the first time in almost a decade.

The reversal of fortunes came at just the right time. As part of the school's ambitious expansion program, the athletic department announced in 1997 that all sports would be moving to the Division I level. With the question of which sports the school would focus on in Division I still up in the air, Pecknold and the Braves picked a great time to break out, finishing the 1997-98 season with a 19-3-1 record. The following season, still technically a Division II program, the Bobcats joined the new Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and the school announced a special focus on hockey.

The Braves immediately established themselves as one of the powers of the new conference, claiming the MAAC's first two regular season titles in 1999 and 2000, going 53-12-5 in their first two seasons in the league. In 2000, their first full season as a Division I member, Quinnipiac made waves with their Pairwise Ranking through much of the season showing them potentially able to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament despite their schedule being largely insular within the far weaker MAAC. Ultimately, the point would become moot when, as in the league's first season, the Braves were upset in the MAAC semifinals.

2001 brought a third consecutive MAAC regular season title for the Braves, but the tournament was more of the same, this time at the cost of the league's first NCAA auto-bid as the Q lost to Mercyhurst in the MAAC final. But the Braves would get their revenge the following year, taking down the Lakers to claim their first MAAC title and make their first NCAA appearance. They were quickly dispatched by future league-mates Cornell, but Quinnipiac was quickly establishing themselves as a legitimate program in Division I.

The school changed its nickname from the potentially "abusive" Braves to the family-friendly Bobcats in 2002, moving into Atlantic Hockey in 2003 following the demise of the MAAC when local rivals Iona and Fairfield dropped varsity hockey. But the Bobcats were not long for the new conference, either. When Vermont announced in 2004 that they would be moving to Hockey East, Quinnipiac was immediately one of a handful of schools keen to take their place in the higher-level ECAC. The school beat out league-mates Holy Cross and Mercyhurst, and the CHA's Niagara to become the Catamounts' replacement in the 2005-06 season.

Pundits expected the Bobcats to start their tenure in the ECAC at the bottom of the league, but they surprised from the get-go, earning a playoff series victory at RPI and coming within a single win of advancing to the ECAC semifinals in 2006, and then, with half of the team still having been recruited in Atlantic Hockey, reaching all the way to the ECAC championship in 2007, nearly winning the title before a late rush from Clarkson consigned them to second place. Since then, the Bobcats have consistently finished around the middle of the table despite repeated preseason expectations near the bottom of the league.

Winning has become the real expectation at Quinnipiac - since the team moved to a Division I league in 1998, they have never suffered a losing season, and 10 of the 12 seasons have seen the Bobcats winning at least 20 games, including four of their five seasons in the ECAC.

Last year, the Bobcats shocked the pundits again when they shot to the top of the table early in the season, going on a 12-1-0 run to start the season, even earning first-place votes in the national polls. But then the switch was flipped off. Immediately following that 12-1-0 run came a slump of 1-11-2 through early February that sent them back to the middle of the pack and even still, the Bobcats made a go of things in March, knocking off Dartmouth before coming within a win of reaching Albany - defeating Union in the longest game in college hockey history, but dropping the next two games.

Quinnipiac loses a significant amount of scoring ability just through Wong and Lampe, but the key contributions of Beaudoin and Holt will be sorely missed as well. That's not to say that the Bobcats won't have any solid scorers, Zurevinski and Langlois especially have proven ability to put the puck in the net. The bigger issue is that the team is going to be very, very young this year on both ends of the ice, and a young team is usually going to be prone to making mistakes.

The bright spot comes between the pipes. Clarke was one of the main catalysts for the Bobcats' early season successes and is quite clearly one of the best returning goaltenders in the ECAC, right there with RPI's Allen York and Union's Keith Kinkaid. Behind Clarke are a pair of serviceable backups, especially sophomore Eric Hartzell, who was more than capable when he saw the ice last season. The netminders are not as big of a concern for the Q.

For a recent example of what to possibly expect from Quinnipiac this season, one has to look no farther than last year's Dartmouth team. That team had the ability to score and had a goaltending situation that was at least expected to be solid, but the team's overall youth held the Big Green back. The Bobcats will be young, but their goaltending situation is at least better than Dartmouth's was coming into last season. That should at least have the Q in a position where they can vie for home ice in the first round, but unless Clarke can take the team on his back the way he did in the first two months of last season, and maintain that high level of play, there's not much reason to expect that the Bobcats are going to be able to reach for much more than that.

But as we've mentioned, they've got a penchant for proving expectations wrong since joining the ECAC, so we'll have to see. The Engineers won't play the Bobcats until the season's dying weeks, so we'll know more about what to expect from Quinnipiac in a few months.

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