TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tiny Quinnipiac is back in the Frozen Four in a familiar role as an underdog in a star-studded field.
Just don’t confuse the Bobcats (31-3-7), playing on college hockey’s biggest stage for the second time in four seasons, with being a typical Cinderella team pursuing its first national championship.
In addition to having the best record in the country, they’re the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
But when you’re playing Boston College (28-7-5) in Thursday’s semifinals, and the rest of the field includes North Dakota (32-6-4) and Denver (29-9-6), it’s difficult to overlook Quinnipiac’s lack of experience in these settings.
The Eagles, Fighting Hawks and Pioneers have made a combined 61 trips to the Frozen Four, winning 19 national titles.
Not that Quinnipiac is conceding anything.
“You have three storied programs with an immense amount of success, a ton of draft picks — a lot of high picks — and there’s a lot of talent,” said coach Rand Pecknold, who also led the Bobcats to the 2013 Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, where they lost to Yale in the championship game.
“We’re happy to be in the Frozen Four with any teams. We know they are three good teams,” Pecknold added. “For us, it’s about trying to play to our identity. If we continue to do that, we’ll get rewarded for it.”
Boston College is making a record 25th appearance in the Frozen Four and has won five national titles, the last in 2012 in Tampa.
North Dakota and Denver, conference rivals who have met 275 times over the past 66 years, meet in Thursday’s other semifinal at Amalie Arena. The Fighting Hawks and Pioneers both have won seven NCAA titles, second on the all-time list to Michigan’s nine.
“I think this game embodies everything that Division I hockey is,” Denver forward Grant Arnold said. “I think there’s great coaching. There’s great speed. There’s highlight-reel players, great defense and goaltending and a great rivalry.”
North Dakota and Denver have played five times this season, with each team winning twice. The teams skated to a 1-1 tie in the consolation game of last month’s NCHC tournament.
“Awesome stage,” Arnold said, “for the rubber match.”
Quinnipiac, a small Connecticut school better known — especially during a presidential election year — for its Polling Institute, is facing Boston College for the first time in program history.
Pecknold is in his 22nd season guiding the Bobcats, who made the move from Division II to Division I in 1998.
“We’re still a young puppy when it comes to Division I athletics,” Pecknold said, “but I think it has galvanized our students and alumni base into thinking we can be a player of the national scene.”
Pecknold and leading scorer Sam Anas said one of the keys to making it this far has been the team’s consistent approach to handling business at hand and resisting any temptation to look ahead.
“The thing I think was most important for us, we didn’t focus on the big picture. We just focused on what was right ahead of us,” Anas said.
“We didn’t really look at if we were ranked No. 1 or stuff like that,” Anas added. “We just focused on playing the best we can play.”
Boston College’s 35 NCAA tournament appearances rank second all-time behind Michigan and Minnesota (36 each).
Coach Jerry York has led the Eagles to Frozen Four 12 times, and the Eagles have appeared in the title game five of the past six times. A sixth national championship would move BC into a tie with Wisconsin for the third-most ever, however it won’t be easy.
“We understand just how good the field is,” York said. “You put those win-loss records up for four teams, it’s clearly four well-deserved entries to the Frozen Four. We have a lot of respect, not only Quinnipiac … but the Denver program and the North Dakota program.”