My first thought was "he looks like Henrik Lundqvist."
Not actually, of course. For starters, Quinnipiac's bright yellow jersey has nothing in common with the royal blue the Rangers wear. And not that Michael Garteig isn't a good looking guy, but Lundqvist is a man without compare in that department.
The thought came after Quinnipiac's dominant final 40 minutes pushed them past UMass Lowell and on to their second Frozen Four in the past four years. Actually, make that my Quinnipiac Bobcats. Remember when the Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and Lundqvist was jumping up and down in the crease waiting to celebrate? Yeah, this reminded me of that.
The biggest question I got when I selected Quinnipiac as my school of choice was "wait, is that the school without a football team?" Well, yeah, but I'm a hockey fan, so who cares? I certainly would have loved a football team, but hockey has always been priority number one for me; so the lack of a football team didn't matter.
I've gone through this before -- and sort of highlighted it here -- but the Bobcats were really just coming into their own when I was at school. They moved into their new state of the art arena my freshman year, made waves in the ECAC, produced some top college talent that went on to sign with NHL teams, and even earned themselves a top-five ranking.
The story always ended bitterly, though. Quinnipiac found ways to lose the big games. They never got over the hurdles. That top-five ranking? They lost the next week to (I think it was) St. Lawrence. They made it to the ECAC Final ... only to lose. Quinnipiac had a knack to bring you right to the edge of happy and then push you off the cliff of disappointment. As cool as it was to see the team rocket into relevance for a short period of time, it sucked when they crashed back down to earth.
Once I graduated, though, something changed. Quinnipiac thought it would be super cool to make a run to the NCAA Championship Game. You know, after I graduated. Did I mention this happened after I graduated? That run was really special for me (even from semi-afar) and I seriously grappled with driving 16 hours in a single day to get to Pittsburgh in time for the final against archrival Yale and back. (I ended up not being able to get off from work, and Quinnipiac -- who had beaten Yale all three times they faced them that year -- lost 4-0.)
We need to back up a little for this story to make sense, though.
I've been a Rangers fan since the day I was born. For real: my dad made me watch a Rangers game hours in the hospital (I arrived at 11:05PM on October 7th, so technically I watched the Rangers beat the Blues the next day).
The Rangers have always been my thing. I don't care about other sports at anywhere near the level I do the Rangers. It helps that we've had season tickets in the family name since 1968, too. Outside of my family, the Rangers have been one of the most consistent forces in my life.
Having said that, the Rangers sucked when I was growing up. The problem was, they never sucked enough to really help themselves. And when opportunities did present themselves the Rangers either A) made really bad draft selections (some more defensible than others), B) threw gobs of money at the wrong players or C) made really bad personnel decisions along the way. If you're going to be bad, you may as well fall through the floor, stockpile draft picks, make smart selections and be cautious about who you invest in long term. The Rangers did none of that. Actually, this sounds really familiar. *Looks at everything the Rangers have done since 2014* Let's move on ...
The Rangers were good enough to be close to the playoffs, but not good enough. The dark years (if you're not a Rangers fan this refers to the seven straight years the Rangers missed the playoffs from 1998 through the lockout of 2004) were always a fight to the bitter end, without any payoffs. That's so much more mentally draining than a team just being bad and knowing it from the start.
When I went to college, that started to change. The Rangers made the playoffs in 2006 (the year after the lockout) on the legs of a historic season for Jaromir Jagr (he set the single-season goals record with 54 and recorded 123 points) and some rookie upstart named Henrik Lundqvist. As always, there was a catch. A late-season injury sidelined Jagr and he returned spectacularly for the first playoff game played in Madison Square Garden in seven years. Only the Rangers were down 2-0 in the series. And Jagr really couldn't play with his injury. And the Rangers got swept by the Devils in pretty heartbreaking fashion.
Miller's Breakout Season A Saving Grace For NYR
J.T. Miller has exploded onto the scene this year, and for the New York Rangers things couldn't have come at a better time.
My freshman year things were different. The re-branded Rangers made some really smart moves, and on the coattails of the sophomore sensation Lundqvist they swept the Atlanta Thrashers in the first round. I was at Game 3 when the Rangers won 7-1, and it was one of the coolest nights of my life. When I returned to school the next day I still had the confetti in my hair from when the Rangers won. I didn't notice it as I slept on Metro North that morning on my way back to New Haven. That was cool too.
From there the Rangers became sort of dependable. Outside of the Olli Jokinen shootout disaster (for real, John Tortorella, when you have Marian Gaborik making $7.5-million a year you give him the !#^$*&% puck) the Rangers have always been a playoff team who made some level of noise.
As the Tortorella years died down, Alain Vigneault stepped in and took the team to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year. It ended badly, but it was a step in the right direction. Last year was a deviation from the success of 2014; as Vigneault put his stamp on the team, he still managed to win the Presidents' Trophy and make it back to the Eastern Conference Final. That, uh, also ended badly. This year things have gone further in the new direction (I want to call it the wrong direction, but for now this works). The Rangers aren't winning the big games, they're dropping points to poor opponents, running wild on defense, being bailed out by elite goaltending and not having much puck possession. Basically: this isn't the same New York Rangers from 2014; this is a group that looks a whole hell of a lot like the guys from the Tortorella years -- you know, the teams that were good but not good enough.
Quinnipiac? They're a different story. After the Bobcats fell to Yale in the NCAA Championship game it felt empty. QU had a couple of years where things didn't exactly go swimmingly, but only looking at the surface missed what was going on beneath it. Rand Pecknold was building something. He was planting the seeds.
Quinnipiac -- when I was there -- had a few players that earned national eyeballs. Matthew Peca is a Lightning draft pick (7th round in 2011) who has 38 points in 64 games with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. Kellen Jones was also a 7th round draft pick (in 2010) by the Edmonton Oilers. He's also in the AHL right now -- he has 21 points in 77 AHL games, and has posted 50 points in 50 ECHL games.
After the championship run Pecknold was able to use that momentum to start grabbing what I'll call "real college prospects." College is funny in that some guys are much older because there are intermediate junior leagues that don't remove a player's NCAA eligibility. The BCHL and USHL are examples of this. Anyone who goes to the QMJHL, OHL or WHL forfeits their college eligibility because technically they're professional players. This means some college freshman are as old as 21 -- and there's more on that here if you're interested.
Quinnipiac's final run came on the heels of a much older team, but since then Pecknold has been able to acquire some of the bigger "prospects" who aren't these older players. The Bobcats best player, Sam Anas, came to the team as an 18-year-old freshman who was coming off 63 points in 64 USHL games. He has 50 points in 41 games this year and in his ECAC career he's posted an astounding 132 points in 119 games. He's not a player the Bobcats would have been able to acquire a few years ago. (Anas is twice undrafted but worked out with Washington two years ago and the Islanders last year.)
More to the point: Quinnipiac now boasts two players who are much more than just seventh round draft picks. Connor Clifton was taken in the fifth round by Arizona in 2013 and has 27 points in 41 games as one of the Bobcats' best defenseman. Devin Towes -- as much as it pains me to admit -- was a fourth round pick of the (yuck) Islanders in 2014. He's taken enormous strides in his three years at Quinnipiac and has 30 points in 38 games as a defenseman.
These are the pillars on which Quinnipiac is building its attempt at the school's first NCAA title. With players like Travis St. Denis (46 points in 41 games), Tim Clifton (40 points in 37 games) and Landon Smith (36 points in 41 games), the Bobcats have one of the most dangerous forward groups in the country. And it should show that Quinnipiac played very poorly against RIT and still blew them out of the water in the opening round, and thoroughly dominated UMass Lowell with a second and third period that saw them only concede nine total shots.
This also means we need to give a massive shout out to Garteig, who has anchored himself as one of the best goalies in the country.
Somewhere along the way from my graduating to today, Quinnipiac has become my Mr. Reliable. My Bobcats are the team that are hunkering down and taking care of business, moving in the right direction off the ice and continuing to be a dominant force on it.
Despite being a Rangers fan my entire life, there's a connection with rooting for your school team that makes it different. I was a Bobcat. I have so many stories about my time there (many of which I probably shouldn't publicly admit I was a part of) that it'd be impossible not to be bonded to the school.
As much as I'd like to believe that I've invested enough blood, sweat and tears into the Rangers to be a part of them, there's always going to be a thin film between us. I never played for them, never worked for the organization and probably never will either (I'm still draft eligible, Gordie, if you need someone who can kind of skate and has a ton of heart).
Moreover, my wife is the head coach of the women's lacrosse team at Quinnipiac. I'm there almost every weekend to watch her play. Most of my closest friends are from my time at Quinnipiac. I still go to all the games I can, breathe in the spectacular spring air when Britt is in season, talk to all the coaches and the players, and pretend like I'm still in college for a few moments whenever I go back.
It's special. It was special back then and it's still special now.
With an enormous Frozen Four matchup against BC looming, the Bobcats still have a ways to go before they can finish the job. Either way, I'm confident in where Quinnipiac is going regardless of the result. Not just because they're good, but because they've become my Mr. Reliable.
When did that happen?