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Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold can walk into his dressing room and feel some old familiar feelings. The faces are different but the record is similar and the vibe is unmistakable.
“There is actually a lot of similarities to our 2013 and ′16 Frozen Four teams,” said Pecknold, who has No. 2-ranked Quinnipiac men’s hockey back at the top of the national rankings. “Those teams also had a No. 1 ranking at some point during the season, and that’s the character in our room. Just an awesome group of guys. They’re all buying in, a 3.7 team GPA, they just do everything the right way. They don’t need to have someone watching them to do things the right way.”
The hope for Quinnipiac (18-2-3) and the state’s other Division I programs is to have a lot of people — especially young hockey players — watching them do things the right way as the Connecticut Ice tournament returns on Saturday and Sunday.
The Bobcats play Sacred Heart, winner of the inaugural Connecticut Ice tournament, in the second game on Saturday. UConn and Yale face off in the opener at 3:30 p.m. ET at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. The event, driven to existence by SNY, is meant to be a Connecticut version of Boston’s famous Beanpot tournament. It offers a chance for young players in Connecticut to see some of the best college hockey in the country. Five Hobey Baker Award candidates will be on display.
“Youth hockey players don’t get to watch enough college hockey,” said Yale coach Keith Allain, who coached the Bulldogs to the 2013 national championship. “They don’t get to see how exciting it is, they don’t get to see the pageantry. And when they look at the rosters and they see there are Connecticut players on all of our rosters they can think, ‘hey, if they can do it, maybe I can do it as well.’”
The championship game is Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET, followed by the consolation game. Sacred Heart won the first Connecticut Ice title, beating Quinnipiac 4-1 for the title in 2020. The event drew 10,355 over its two days, Jan. 25-26, a few weeks before the sports world stopped due to COVID-19. The pandemic forced the tournament’s cancellation in 2021.
The atmosphere, the excitement and the results of the first event have stayed with Quinnipiac.
“I was a little disappointed that we fell flat in the championship game,” Pecknold said. “I was impressed with Sacred Heart, their celebration, how excited their kids were. I still remember them jumping over the boards. Their fans, their engagement was outstanding. … We still have that taste in our mouths.”
This season against ranked teams, Quinnipiac tied Boston College, beat Northeastern, split two games with North Dakota, beat Harvard and lost in OT to Cornell. Through 23 games, the Bobcats have outscored opponents 82-24 and outshot them 806-393. Wyatt Bongiovanni (12 goals, seven assists) and Ty Smilanic (11 and seven) are the top scorers. Yaniv Perets (0.84 goals against) and Dylan St. Cyr (1.43) have been solid in goal.
“These guys are willing to block shots, willing to back-check hard, willing to do the little things we need to do to be successful,” Pecknold said.
Sacred Heart, like UConn, has a new rink under construction and its program is rising under C.J. Marottolo, a North Haven native in his 13th season. With its Connecticut Ice championship as a springboard, the Pioneers were 21-10-2 in 2019-20.
“[The tournament] was a great event for us,” Marottolo said. “Not only to win it but to see our hockey community at Sacred Heart come together. Our student body and administrators really got behind our team that weekend, and it was great for our players to sense that community.”
This season, Sacred Heart (9-11-3) is led by Braeden Tuck (eight goals, six assists) and Ryan Steele (eight, five).
Yale (5-10-1) has had a number of games canceled or postponed due to COVID but has earned a tie with Colgate and road wins at Union and RPI in its last three games. Ian Carpentier, who leads the Bulldogs with six goals, had four goals and an assist in the two wins and was named ECAC player of the week.
UConn (11-10, 8-6 in Hockey East) defeated New Hampshire and Merrimack in its last two games, both at the XL Center. The Huskies have two players, Jachym Kondelik and Ryan Tverberg, on the Hobey Baker Award’s list of candidates, along with Quinnipiac’s Perets and Zach Metsa and Sacred Heart’s Tuck.
Huskies coach Mike Cavanaugh, a Massachusetts native and long-time assistant at Boston College before coming to UConn, has a long history with the Beanpot — he remembers his father stranded at the event during the Blizzard of 1978. The Connecticut Ice tournament, he says, can become a similar season-within-a-season, timed perfectly in January.
“One thing I always liked about The Beanpot was the timing of it,” Cavanaugh said. “This tournament has similar timing. It prepares you for what’s coming ahead. Sometimes, when you didn’t play well in the Beanpot, you realized, ‘hey, we’ve got to be a little bit more aggressive if we want to make the playoffs.’ Sometimes you win at the Beanpot and you say, ‘this is the blueprint for success down the road.’”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org