A hockey trip out East – Part IV

By Kevin Hartzell
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

After a great Christmas in Connecticut, we hung around to see the high flying Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks invade Hamden, Conn., and the hottest team in the country, the Quinnipiac Bobcats who were sporting a 10-game unbeaten streak. It’s always a mystery to know what to expect after the Christmas break at any level but especially in college hockey where the boys get three weeks off. Trips home to family are great, but these trips often include visits with old friends that often are more about renewing old acquaintances than they are getting to bed and staying in a training mode. I expected sloppy hockey upon the return to game play.

December 29-30: I was nervous for Quinnipiac. To leave the break the hottest team in the country, one wondered what we would see coming back. Plus, coach Dean Blais had his Mavericks in fine form near the top of the WCHA and one of the leading scoring teams in America.  Omaha has the leading scorer in the country in Ryan Walters. Ryan is a Minnesota native, from Rosemount. He played some at St. Thomas Academy before leaving early for Des Moines in the USHL. I always liked Ryan’s game. His game has skill to be sure, but his game is based more on grit and a hard edge. I was lucky enough to coach against him and always felt he was a pain in the back-side to coach against. More of a pain to play against I am sure. I was excited to see him play again, though I would have been more excited had it not been against my goalie son playing for the other team.

It indeed was a sloppy game. Goalies looked rusty and both teams took turns doing some really good things, then some not so good things. This game was attended by a great number of NHL scouts, coaches and executives. Maybe the most I have seen in one arena for a “regular” game. One of Omaha’s most coveted free agents is Andrej Sustr, undrafted by the NHL but his game stature is growing. Andrej is from Plzen, Czech Republic. He is a 6-8 defenseman who handles the puck well and is mobile. He first came to the U.S. to play in the USHL for the Youngstown Phantoms and is now being watched by most NHL teams.

This night is the first night in a long time I don’t think Eric has his A game. But to his credit, in the third period when it mattered most, he looked calm and cool and played very well. I remind him after the game that the many scouts following him around the past couple of months were probably happy to see how positively he responded in a less than sharp game for him. Over the course of two nights, Quinnipiac won 5-4 and 3-1, extending their unbeaten streak to 12 games.  Ryan Walters left Hamden scoring a goal each night and keeping his NCAA lead in scoring. Topping Walters this weekend is Quinnipiac’s Ben Arnt, a native of No. St. Paul, who gets two big goals and an assist and will be named ECAC Player of the Week for his efforts against the WCHA power-house.

Two more weekends to go for MaryBeth and I before a short summer-like retreat, first to Florida and then off to MaryBeth’s sister’s place in the Dominican Republic. Quinnipiac would face four straight conference rivals in No. 8 Dartmouth, Harvard, RPI and No. 18 ranked Union. 

January 4-5: In one of the finest games I have seen yet this winter, Dartmouth and Quinnipiac play a great game of hockey.  Dartmouth scored late to tie the game 2-2 but Jordan Samuels-Thomas (former Waterloo Blackhawk) of Quinnipiac scored a great goal in overtime to win it for the Bobcats. Dartmouth’s top line of Matt Lindblad, Tyler Sikura and Dustin Walsh were as good a line as I have seen all year. Really fun to watch. The next night, Quinnipiac plays an A game and bests Harvard 6-2 to extend their unbeaten streak to 14 games. Eric’s stop of a 3-on-0 makes the internet highlights.

January 11-12: I know the games are going to get harder. There is no sneaking up on anyone any longer. The whole country knows that Quinnipiac is for real. They receive first-place votes in the polls for the first time in program history. They are in a virtual tie for No. 1 in the PairWise rankings, a system for determining seeding in the NCAA tournament. The first night against RPI, they get all they can handle and skate to a 1-1 tie.

The next night against a very good Union team, they get the most unlikely win in their streak which is now at 16 games without a loss. Down 2-0 early, Quinnipiac takes back-to-back major penalties just before the second period intermission. Starting the third, they will skate just three players for four- and-a-half minutes. But as streaks go, good and sometimes unexpected things happen.  The Bobcats kill off the major penalties and go on to score three unanswered third period goals to come back and beat a team that was in the final four last year. 

While the unbeaten streak is at 16 games, Bobcat Coach Rand Pecknold has the boys show up at 6 a.m., to scrub the arena seats as a reminder that no matter how good the team might be, they will not win taking the penalties they were taking. I suspect scrubbing seats isn’t too bad a chore when you’ve got such a streak going.  Hopefully for the Bobcats, they got the message and in two weeks when they return to conference play, they can pursue a first-ever ECAC championship for their relatively young program. Currently the Bobcats are either on top or near the top of the ever-changing PairWise rankings.

As for our son Eric, he was awarded two consecutive ECAC Goaltender of the Month awards and is on the list of Hobey Baker Award nominees. We are excited parents and we know how hard he has worked to get to this point. Not coaching was not something I envisioned this year, but to be able to witness all that we are witnessing, and spending time with family, old friends and many new friends, has been a blessing to say the least.

And Quinnipiac, they are now dealing with a whole new set of circumstance. They are on the national radar like never before in their young program’s history. They will get each team’s best each night. Now that they have risen to the top, they now have to learn what it takes to stay there. Less than their best will not be good enough.