Peca, Anas reunite in search of championship

American Hockey League

📝 by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat

Springfield Thunderbirds linemates Matthew Peca and Sam Anas are the furthest thing from strangers to one another. It takes more than one hand to list their similarities.

As players, they both are on the smaller side of the equation, but their speed and skill are paramount to their games. They each have reached the cusp of championships at multiple levels of hockey. They both have carved out roles as top-flight contributors in the American Hockey League.

As much as anything, though, 2021 marks a reunion for Peca and Anas six years in the making, though neither 28-year-old had a preconceived notion it would happen. Theirs is a story that begins as college hockey Bobcats.

Prior to 2016, only one Quinnipiac University product had ever played National Hockey League games — Bryce Van Brabant, who played six games with Calgary in 2014. Quinnipiac, with a student body of fewer than 7,000 undergraduates, sits in idyllic Hamden, Conn., about a 90-minute drive from New York City and an hour down I-91 and the Merritt Parkway from Springfield.

Only a Division I hockey program since 1998, Quinnipiac has always been a winning school — the Bobcats have never finished under .500 in any season they have played — but has been obscured from the bright lights that shine for New England college powers like Boston College and Boston University.

“Early on in the program, they had been knocked on for [having good teams but] not really developing players,” Peca said.

It is impossible to tell the story of Quinnipiac hockey without including Rand Pecknold, who, now in his 28th season as the head coach for the Bobcats, has been instrumental in laying the foundation and building a history of success that has elevated him to third on the all-time wins list among active Division I hockey coaches.

“(Rand) has a really good formula that he has perfected,” Peca said of his college coach. “He stresses being a really good defensive team, not giving up a lot of shots, but he does not take away from our creativity on offense.”

One look at Peca’s college numbers reveal just that — the former seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning never finished a season with fewer than 30 points as a Bobcat. As a sophomore in 2012-13, he was a plus-36 and part of a Quinnipiac team that went all the way to the national championship game.

Peca would become the second Bobcat to play in the NHL when he debuted with Tampa Bay on Dec. 28, 2016. He has played 78 NHL games since then, but Anas is still awaiting his first shot.

That Anas has not received even one NHL game is a thought that perplexes Peca.

“I don’t know. There are a lot of guys that have played with him that think the exact same thing,” Peca said. “I’ve had conversations with some staff members in St. Louis and they believe he has a top-6 mind, even in the NHL. For me, looking at him, I think it’s just a matter of time.”

It is perhaps painfully fitting that Anas is still in a “prove it” position. Quinnipiac extended Anas his only Division I offer when he was just a teenager. He left the school as an All-American, a Frozen Four finalist, and a prolific scorer, potting 132 points in 121 games.

He has carried similar success in the professional ranks, winning the AHL scoring title in 2019-20, but in spite of those accolades, the Anas is still patiently waiting for his turn.

He holds no bitterness, though. Anas credits Pecknold with being a key figure in his life as both a hockey player and a young man.

“(Rand) holds you very accountable and is not afraid to let you know. I think that has really helped me in the pro ranks,” said Anas. “You have to be willing to take constructive criticism in whichever shape it comes. He toughened me up and didn’t baby anyone around. He told you how it was, and it helped me build tough skin for pro hockey.”

Matthew Peca reached the national championship game at Quinnipiac in 2013; Sam Anas followed in 2016. (Photos: Getty Images)

Peca remains in awe of Anas’ positive mindset in a situation that could easily have yielded envy and frustration.

“There would be nothing wrong (if Sam was bitter), but he has such a growth mindset. He’s always working on little things on the ice. I think more than anybody, he understands what he needs to do to get to (the NHL) level. Whether it’s being stronger, harder to play against, so that when called upon he can play at that level. He’s going to continue to produce and he’s going to grow as a player, and he’s not the kind of guy who is going to have a big head regardless of how much he’s scoring. It’s going to happen for him.”

Anas’ growth can be traced back to his arrival at Quinnipiac, which came mere months after Peca led the Bobcats into the Frozen Four, where a Cinderella Yale team was the only roadblock that kept QU from hoisting the championship trophy.

“He was ‘the guy’ when I arrived,” Anas recalls of Peca. “He did — and does — everything the right way. You take notes in the way he does everything, on and off the ice.

“He was a great student, too. He was always a guy that underclassmen could approach, whether it was about classes, hockey, anything.”

Lamentably for Anas, he also had to taste heartache in the 2016 Frozen Four, when North Dakota knocked off the Bobcats in the national championship game. Anas had played much of that tournament through an upper body injury.

Even though neither man could get Pecknold his national championship, the legacy each player left behind is undeniable. Since 2016, Anas, Peca, Travis St. Denis, Connor Clifton, Devon Toews, Chase Priskie and Brogan Rafferty have all made their mark at either the NHL and AHL levels. It’s a feeling each man feels intensely.

“Proud is the right word,” Peca says when asked about those players’ journeys. “Rand and the staff have done a great job developing players into pros. It’s going to become more and more frequent. They have the mindset implemented in the guys of what you need to do to (reach the pro ranks).”

“The bar was set much higher and we knew we had a good team (at QU),” said Anas. “It was cool to go in and know that there were so many good players already. I had a blast.”

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021, and Peca came to terms with St. Louis on a two-way contract. While Anas claims he had no pull in bringing Peca into the organization, Peca does concede that on a deeper level, Sam’s presence had an impact.

“St. Louis was the right choice contractually and in terms of opportunity,” Peca said. “But the more I looked into it, the more excited I got seeing what kind of group we have here, and it’s always nice to play with someone you know.”

Winning has continued to follow both players in their AHL careers: Peca reached the Calder Cup Finals in 2017 with Syracuse, and Anas led Iowa to its first-ever playoff berth in 2019 and an 82-point output through 63 games in 2019-20. The only missing piece on both players’ mantles is a championship trophy. Each agrees that Springfield — off to a 7-1-2-0 start — has the makings of a special group.

“The talent level is there, but I think the main part if cohesion,” says Anas. “It’s a good mesh of older and younger guys. I think all the younger guys feel comfortable. If we’re golfing or getting dinners, we’re mixing the groups and everyone’s with older and younger guys. The biggest thing is making the young guys feel comfortable right away; it’s a big adjustment.”

“Depth and experience are huge in this league,” Peca said. “We have a good mix of rookies that are hungry and work hard, guys that have been around a long time, and players that are still trying to prove themselves. That’s what you want – internal competition among players to get callups, but also (to be) tight as a team.”

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