What happens when you put the hottest team in college hockey up against the overall No. 1 seed?
We get to find out Saturday night when Canisius College faces off against national No. 1 Quinnipiac at 5:30 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Providence, R.I.
While the teams did not play each other this year, there is familiarity between the programs. The Bobcats were a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and then Atlantic Hockey, along with Canisius, from 1999 to 2005, when they left to join the ECAC.
In fact, Canisius got the better of Quinnipiac in two of the three times they met in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs.
While the history is interesting, the present is much more compelling. The Golden Griffins are on an eight-game winning streak, the longest streak in the nation.
The Bobcats ripped off a 21-game unbeaten streak (18-0-3) in November and December, which turned heads and placed them in the top spots in the national polls and in the all-important PairWise.
But Quinnipiac is just 4-3-1 over its last eight games, including 4-0 loss to Brown in the ECAC tournament semifinals.
This is the Griffs first trip to the NCAA tournament. It’s the second for Quinnipiac, which went in 2002 and lost to Cornell, 6-1, in the first round.
The Bobcats are a senior-led team and it all starts with goaltender Eric Hartzell. He was named the ECAC Player of the Year and the ECAC Goaltender of the Year while making the Top 10 Finalist list for the Hobey Baker Award.
Hartzell anchors the Bobcats’ defense, which ranks first in the nation and allows just 1.52 goals per game. That ranks Hartzell third nationally in goals-against average while his save percentage (.934) and shutouts (five) are also outstanding.
Senior Zach Davies is the backbone of a solid group in front of Hartzell, earning the ECAC’s Best Defensive Defenseman award. And to go along with that defense, as you’d expect, is the nation’s best penalty killing unit at 91.0 percent (151 of 166).
Offensively the Bobcats score by committee. They average 3.0 goals a game, good for 20th in the country, but the strength remains their solid defense.
Junior goaltender Tony Capobianco has been steady and consistent for the Griffs all season. He set program records for saves (1,220) and shutouts (four) in a season. And while he’s stolen moments in games, he hasn’t necessarily stolen a win.
He’s left that to an offense that has found its groove.
The Griffs had struggled to score with any consistency for the better part of two years, after the departure of Cory Conacher to graduation and an NHL career. For 34 games this season, Canisius averaged just 2.18 goals a game. Over the last eight games, it has averaged 4.5 goals.
Junior Kyle Gibbons and his linemates, Cody Freeman and Patrick Sullivan, have led the offensive charge, but scoring has come from all corners of the lineup. During the winning streak, Gibbons has 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists) and Freeman has 10 points (8 goals, 2 assists). But consider the timely goals from Tyler Wiseman and Ralph Cuddemi during the Atlantic Hockey Championship weekend and it’s clear that the Griffs have much more depth offensively than just their top line.
The Bobcats’ defensive numbers are really impressive. Getting a puck past the defense, let alone past Hartzell, is an extremely difficult task. While the Griffs made Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year and Top 10 Hobey Baker Finalist Carsen Chubak look a bit lost in their semifinal win, going against Hartzell in the NCAA tournament may be a different beast all together.
At the other end of the ice, Capobinaco should be solid in goal for the Griffs. He’s the kind of player who doesn’t get rattled even if he gives up the first goal.
Playoff games often come down to special teams and this would be an interesting matchup as Quinnipiac and Canisuis are 1-2 in the nation in penalty killing. On the flip side, neither is lighting the world on fire on their power play. The Griffs have started clicking as of late and rank 20th overall (18.79 percent) while the Bobcats come in at 48th (13.76 percent).
The experience factor is a wash in this one. While the Bobcats have played tougher competition in the regular season than the Griffs, neither team has players with NCAA tournament experience.
Canisius enters the game full of confidence, passion and a nothing-to-lose attitude. If the Bobcats feel the pressure of the No. 1 seed and are thrown off balance by their inconsistent results over the last eight games, the Griffs could be in a position to pull the upset. Either way, expect a low-scoring, defensive game.