HAMDEN >> A year ago, Quinnipiac bid farewell to the two most important hockey recruits in program history. Kellen and Connor Jones elevated the Bobcats from the NCAA tournament bubble to perennial national championship contender.
In the hours after an opening-round loss to North Dakota on Saturday, coach Rand Pecknold was hit with the reality of replacing another player whose impact on the program was immeasurable.
Matthew Peca may well be the best player to ever come through the Hamden campus.
“You really can’t put into words what he did for us,” Pecknold said. “He did everything. It’s almost like if you wanted to build the perfect player to do everything well, you come up with Matthew Peca.”
Peca spent three seasons alongside the Jones twins, and the three were integral in bringing Quinnipiac hockey to the next level. The Joneses changed the locker room culture — the two brought an unrivaled intensity not just for games, but to every single practice session for four years.
Peca was cut from the same mold, a highly skilled playmaker unafraid to get his hands dirty, be it in practice or a game. His most enduring individual legacy will be his performance against Union at the NCAA East Regional final, single-handedly crushing the Dutchmen’s spirit and lifting the Bobcats to the Frozen Four with three first-period goals in a span of 3 minutes, 12 seconds, the fastest hat trick in NCAA history.
But his knack for doing the little things endeared Peca to teammates. Just a shade over 160 pounds, he never shied away from contact in the corners. He was outstanding on face-offs; took countless double-shifts on the penalty kill; devoured minutes in tight games. And his enthusiasm for throwing himself in front of opposing slap shots seemed borderline maniacal.
“When one of the best players in the country is out there blocking shots, you can’t put a value on what that does for the rest of your team,” Pecknold said. “It’s infectious. You can’t be on the third line and think you’re going to shy away from blocking a shot when the stars are doing it.”
Peca was the catalyst to his team’s success this season. He couldn’t do it alone, of course. Co-captain Dan Federico, one of the league’s top defensemen, was also a tireless leader. Devon Toews continues to develop into an NHL-caliber defenseman. Sam Anas and Travis St. Denis provided lethal scoring punch, as did freshman Landon Smith. Goaltender Michael Garteig was consistent after a rough start to the season, finishing among the league’s top three in goals-against average and save percentage.
Quinnipiac, otherwise brimming with underclassmen, handily won its second ECAC Hockey regular-season championship in three years. It also qualified for the NCAA tournament for a third successive season.
The season tally included three overtime wins, seven others by one goal in regulation, two in the final two minutes. Between Dec. 6 and Feb. 28, the last day of the regular season, the Bobcats didn’t lose a conference game. Losses to Harvard in the ECAC semifinals in Lake Placid and to North Dakota in the NCAAs were disappointing, though much closer than the final scores indicate. Anas missed the Harvard game and, a last-minute insertion against North Dakota, played at half-strength due to a leg injury.
Looking ahead to next season, Pecknold must plug holes left by Peca and versatile Alex Barron up front; along with defensemen Justin Agosta and Federico. Toews, a draft pick of the Islanders last June, and Garteig may be presented with NHL offers in the offseason.
The current plan includes a recruiting class of three forwards and three defensemen. Pecknold can’t comment on incoming freshmen until hockey’s national letter of intent signing period commences on April 15.
Several NHL teams are interested in signing Federico, a free agent, and a deal should come quickly. Peca is expected to finalize a deal with Tampa Bay this week. The Lightning drafted him in the seventh round in 2011, and, according to Pecknold, have been thrilled with his development. If not for a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, Peca may have left school a year early.
“He’s ready right now for the NHL,” Pecknold said. “He could go in right now and play games tomorrow night. No doubt in my mind. The question is what does Tampa need? But he had a great year. He was unbelievable and I’m grateful for what he did for this program in his four years.”
Terriers, Huskies coming to Hamden
Quinnipiac’s 12-game, non-conference schedule next season is highlighted by a visit from Boston University and two games with St. Cloud State at High Point Solutions Arena.
The Terriers, on their way to the Frozen Four in Boston, have never played Quinnipiac. St. Cloud is returning two games the Bobcats played at its rink in January.
Quinnipiac will play home-and-away series against Holy Cross, UMass and Maine. There’s also a home game with Bentley and on the road at Northeastern. Pecknold said his team will face UConn at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena for the second successive season. Dates are tentative, and will be announced later.