Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey wins national championship

Say it with us, America: the Quinnipiac Bobcats are national champions.

At long last, the men’s ice hockey program captured the Division I NCAA title on Saturday night with a stirring, 3-2 overtime triumph over top-seeded Minnesota in front of 19,444 at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

“I’m just trying not to cry,” coach Rand Pecknold said, wiping away tears that had already fallen. The Bobcats’ 56-year-old program architect stumbled briefly as he stepped off the bench when the final horn sounded, dazed by the dizzying sequence that produced the clinching goal.

Could you blame him? Second-year forward Jacob Quillan scored 10 seconds into the extra period, blitzing the net to steer in a pinpoint backhand feed from linemate Sam Lipkin, who corralled a long pass from fifth-year captain Zach Metsa after Quillan won the face-off. “We practiced that play all year,” Quillan said on the ice after the game.

The bold decision to pull goaltender Yaniv Perets during a power play late in the third period paid dividends when Collin Graf knotted the game at 2-2 shortly after time expired on Quinnipiac’s 6-4 advantage.

“As we all know, I like to pull the goalie,” Pecknold said. “I just feel like you're going to wait a little bit, go 6-on-5. Why not do it 6-on-4?”

Second-year forward Cristophe Tellier had given the Bobcats a pulse in the second period, deflecting in Metsa’s shot to cut a 2-0 deficit in half. As they made a desperate push to tie the game, the shot advantage tipped decidedly in the Bobcats’ favor. And the momentum shifted for good when Minnesota was whistled for a high stick with just under five minutes remaining in regulation, paving the way for Pecknold's gamble.

He now takes his rightful place among New England college hockey coaching greats. The man who took the reins of a struggling Division II outfit while he was still a full-time high school history teacher oversaw the Bobcats’ stunning transformation into a perennial powerhouse, instilling a culture that values character, unity and grit over pure talent.

The long climb to the sport’s summit, which started back in 1994, is now complete.

“You can't even believe where we were,” Pecknold said of the program’s humble origin story. “Some of the guys were here tonight from that first team. It's incredible to do what we've done and be where we are. Just excited to get it done.”

A third trip to the national semifinals in 10 years was charmed from the start. But after winning the most games in program history (34), the Bobcats were perceived once again as the party crashers to a Frozen Four that featured three of the NCAA’s most decorated programs.

Quinnipiac knocked off Ohio State in the Bridgeport regional final, bottled up an explosive Michigan squad in the semis and toppled the uber-talented Gophers — a team that boasts two of the three national player of the year award finalists on the same scoring line.

Perets was spectacular again in the final, saving 13 of 15 Minnesota offerings and buckling down as the Bobcats clawed their way back into the game. An unheralded recruit out of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec, his only Division I offer came from Quinnipiac. His performance between the pipes this season made 59 Division I teams sorry they whiffed.

The win reverberated at watch parties at On The Rocks on the York Hill Campus, Eli’s on Whitney and other Hamden hot spots — as well as restaurants in Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston. And another blue-and-gold bash at Cigar City Brewing right across from the rink was filled to capacity hours before puck drop.

The Tampa contingent got a boost from an estimated 15-20 former players, many of whom flew in with their families late Friday and early Saturday.

“We’ve got guys here going all the way back to the Northford Ice Pavilion and other guys who were playing just a few years ago,” said Soren Jonzzon, who captained the Bobcats in 2016 when they last appeared in the Frozen Four in Tampa. “The culture that the team has in the locker room, there’s no doubt that it continues. Once you’re on the team and you’re alumni, you’re family.”

Jonzzon said he expected to shed tears from either outcome. He made good on his word, catching Metsa’s attention as he pounded on the glass in one corner of the rink in the game’s euphoric aftermath.

In a sign of the Bobcats’ generational brotherhood, Metsa spotted Jonzzon and pointed at his fellow captain.

“It’s unbelievable how deep Bobcat blood runs,” Metsa said.

Gov. Ned Lamont watched the victory with President Judy D. Olian, who visited the locker room after the game to congratulate the Bobcats on their transformative achievement. 

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