PROVIDENCE — The No. 1 team in the country, Quinnipiac, fired three third-period goals to grasp a stunning 4-3 victory over Canisius before 6,253 Saturday at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in the first round of the NCAA East Regional. It was the first NCAA Tournament victory for the Bobcats (28-7-5).
Canisius (19-19-5), never ranked in the national poll until sliding in at No. 20 this week, had an improbable 3-1 lead at 3:43 of the third period after junior Kyle Gibbons, demonstrating a fierce persistence, first lifted a backhand shot at Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell, then picked up his rebound and rapped it in for his 21st goal.
Meanwhile, junior Tony Capobianco was a madman in the Canisius goal, making 36 saves, and turning aside a score of point-blank shots.
“It’s a hard thing to do as a goaltender, to block that out, a two-goal lead,’’ Capobianco said. “I’m not sure how much time was left in the game. I just knew I had to keep playing my game, I knew they were going to come, just like they did in the first period.’’
Slicker and quicker Quinnipiac, which spent most of the year perched on top of the national rankings and which was the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, had plenty more to give.
Matthew Peca pulled the Bobcats within one at 8:02, taking a short backhand pass from Connor Jones at the left side of the goal and sharp-shooting the puck over Capobianco’s right shoulder.
“I’m still not sure how [Peca] ripped it under the bar, but it was a big-time goal,’’ said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. “That second goal gave us life, we felt it. Peca and Connor made a big-time play. It’s exciting, the guys were fired up. I knew we were going to win [then] . . . and I think our bench knew it.’’
Quinnipiac tied the game at 10:41 with a power-play score, Jordan Samuels-Thomas’s wrist shot from the right circle skidding past Capobianco’s glove.
The winner came off the stick of Kevin Bui, a fourth-line left wing, who rushed the net to collect the rebound of Bryce Van Brabant’s backhand from the right wing and slam it past Capobianco at 14:28. Bui also scored in double-overtime against Cornell in the third game of the ECAC tournament’s best-of-three first round.
“Our mentality going into the game is really why we won the game,’’ said Pecknold. “We talked about it all weekend: we weren’t going to panic.’’
Canisius, a team without a home rink, was an unlikely quarterfinalist in the school’s first trip to the NCAAs. The Golden Griffins finished the regular season in seventh in the Atlantic Hockey Conference, but stormed through the conference tournament, earning victories over Bentley (best-of-three), No. 2 Air Force, No. 1 Niagara, and No. 6 Mercyhurst to claim the automatic NCAA bid.
Quinnipiac, the ECAC regular-season champion, stumbled with a 6-4-1 record heading into the NCAAs. The Bobcats were on the verge of more disappointment when Canisius scored two goals in 44 seconds early in the second period to take a 2-1 lead. Quinnipiac had controlled the first period, taking the lead on a collaboration from the Jones brothers, Connor taking twin Kellen’s backhand pass at the top of the slot and ripping a shot past Capobianco at 8:43.
But the second period belonged to the Griffins. Defenseman Stephen Farrell tied the game at 4:24, unloading a shot from about 15 feet for just his second goal of the season. Hartzell appeared to scoop up the puck, but it fell to the ice behind him, sliding into the net.
At 5:08, Canisius again took advantage of staging its bigger players at the front of the net, Patrick Sullivan fending off a crowd to tip Duncan McKellar’s shot from the right point.
“I thought that we looked like a new team early and then the guys settled down,’’ said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “With every check, every shot on net, every first time that we went through something, we settled down. Then we really came out in the second and played the way we’ve been playing.’’
Even as its character was tested, Quinnipiac worked its way back into the game.
“The game wasn’t how we drew it up on the board, it wasn’t perfect,’’ said Pecknold. “We were sloppy defensively.
“But I’ll tell you what . . . Down, 3-1, late in the third, to battle back like that, I think the character came out.’’