April 11, 2013

A fresh-faced Frozen Four commences in Pittsburgh

By Andrew Merritt

The Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, hours before the start of the 2013 Frozen Four. (Photo by Andrew Merritt)

PITTSBURGH – Three programs that have never reached the national semifinals and one whose last trip was so long ago, none of the semifinalists’ head coaches were alive yet.

That’s your Frozen Four field this year.

If we were talking about the NCAA basketball tournament, perhaps a field like that would cause a nationwide panic fueled with the fire of a million shredded brackets. But in college hockey, things are a little different this year. Four teams from cities a lot of people would have some trouble finding on a map are playing for the national title, giving the race for the trophy a unique flavor.

The favorites and underdogs are separated by degrees, and it’s arguable which teams are which.

There’s Quinnipiac, which held the No. 1 ranking in the country for a bulk of the second half of the season, but didn’t even reach the ECAC title game.

There’s UMass-Lowell, a team that was so far off the map a few months ago, it was at one point not even inside its league’s playoff bubble, yet came back to win the Hockey East title.

There’s St. Cloud State, a young program that produced the biggest surprise west of the Mississippi by winning the WCHA title for the first time in its history.

And there’s Yale, which earned its NCAA tournament berth at the eleventh hour, thanks to higher-seeded Notre Dame beating Michigan in the CCHA championship game.

“It’s not the big five or six teams in the country, but it’s putting the other guys on the map,” said UMass-Lowell defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, a junior who has been at the center of a River Hawk defense that has allowed the third fewest goals per game in the nation this year. “I wouldn’t say the other teams are falling off. I think everybody else is starting to catch up.”

And if the matchups of the four relative unknowns aren’t enticing to the casual observer who might be looking for a traditional power, well, that’s just too bad.

“It’s not that the named teams aren’t here. The right teams are here,” St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko said. “Three of the teams won their conference championship, which is a best indication of what kind of season you get put through. And Yale kicked the crap out of the WCHA going 4-0 this year. So, underdog, favorite, I think the right teams are here, and this thing is just like it was two weeks ago: A wide-open tournament. I believe that to stick with the theme from that week, it’s still anybody’s tournament.”

And no matter what happens over the next three days at the Consol Energy Center, a new NCAA champion will be crowned Saturday night.

If there is a true favorite, on paper it might be Quinnipiac. The Bobcats (29-7-5) won more games than any team in the country this year, and in February earned the No. 1 ranking for the first time in the program’s history. After an inauspicious start to their season, they went undefeated over a 21-game stretch starting on Nov. 9, going 18-0-3 over that span.

The biggest reason for Quinnipiac’s success is large indeed – goaltender Eric Hartzell stands 6-foot-4, and his goals against average (1.55) is third-best in the country, augmented by an eighth-best .933 save percentage.

“Hartzell has been our rock. In the Union game, he didn't get a ton of work, but he makes that save on Novak early in the game, and it might be a different hockey game,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, referring to the breakaway stop Hartzell made on Union’s Max Novak early in what turned out to be a runaway 5-1 Bobcat win in the Providence Regional final. “That was a big save. He gives us a ton of confidence, and we have four senior defensemen who have been great. That's certainly something you want to have.”

Zack Currie, the Bobcats’ captain, is one of those defensemen, and he’s the leader of a D-corps that has allowed an astounding 23.44 shots on Hartzell’s net – the lowest number in the nation.

Quinnipiac is coming off of a wild and woolly weekend at the East Regional in Providence, where the only thing more surprising than their 5-1 romp past union in the regional final was their nailbiter victory over a feisty Canisius team the night before.

The Bobcats play St. Cloud at 8 p.m. Thursday night. It will be the fifth all-time meeting of the programs, with the Huskies (25-15-1) owning a 3-1 record in their previous clashes.

But history isn’t really something on anyone’s mind at this Frozen Four. That this particular collection of teams is here to decide a title is pretty improbable, but for the next few days, it’s all about the possible.

“The very first interview I did when I got hired at St. Cloud … the guy said, ‘Coach, do you think you can win a national title here?’ And the first thing that popped out of my mouth was, ‘It can happen here,’” Motzko said. “Yes, we can win a national championship. You can become a doctor. We have three former doctors that are alums from our university. We use that in so many different ways. That's been our calling card when we recruit: It can happen here.”

It’s a slogan that could apply to all four semifinalists, and one of them will have proof of that sentiment in a few days’ time.

UMass-Lowell already has a taste – the River Hawks are putting the punctuation on the greatest season in the program’s history, one that includes Hockey East regular season and tournament titles for the very first time.

Like Quinnipiac, UMass-Lowell can credit its defense and goaltending for getting it here. The River Hawks have allowed 27.65 shots per game, 12th best in the country, and while Connor Hellebuyck may have seen more shots than Hartzell, he’s been even better, with the best GAA (1.31) and save percentage (.953) in the nation.

Hellebuyck is a rookie who didn’t take over as the No. 1 goaltender until midway through the season. He’s been stellar ever since, but he’s also had help.

“I feel like one of the underlying themes of our team is team defense and blocking shots,” said senior Riley Wetmore (Swanton, Vt.). “I feel like a lot of people don't look at that. But that's why Connor has been doing so well. I feel like it's a team game, and he'll tell you that as well.

“His poise back there, you see him, he's kind of boring to watch at times because he's always in the right position and he is such a good goaltender,” Wetmore said. “But when you have a team buying in and everyone blocking shots, it really does help him out.”

The River Hawks will write the next chapter in their incredible season with the early game on Thursday, a 4:30 p.m. tilt against Yale (20-12-3). The Bulldogs are certainly the most improbably of the four semifinalists, having survived a five-game losing streak in February before beating St. Lawrence in the ECAC quarterfinals. They lost to Quinnipiac in the ECAC consolation game, which very well could have been their last of the season.

Instead, Notre Dame’s victory got them the last at-large bid to the tournament, and they took that luck from the Irish and ran with it. Yale beat powerhouses Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Regional, starting with an overtime victory over the then-No. 1 Golden Gophers.

Yale’s last visit to the national semifinals came in 1952, when the entire tournament consisted of four teams. But if this is unfamiliar territory for the Bulldogs, they sure don’t talk like it.

“Every time we don't get to compete for a National Championship is a disappointment in our eyes, and last year we weren't able to do that,” said senior Andrew Miller, who’s second on the team with 37 points. “So the season started the day after we lost and we've been working hard to get back to this point every day since.”

In net for Yale is Jeff Malcolm, a senior whose season has gone much like his team’s in general. He missed five games due to an injury suffered in Feb. 1’s win over Princeton – all losses. But Malcolm has gone 7-2-0 over the nine games since, posting a 2.09 GAA and .912 save percentage.

Malcolm has worked with volunteer assistant coach Josh Siembida, spending a lot of mornings with the Quinnipiac alumnus. But he also plays for a head coach in Allain who’s got quite a goaltending pedigree himself. Allain starred at Yale in the late 70s, and before coming back to his alma mater was the goaltending coach for the St. Louis Blues for eight seasons.

The last time Yale played in a national semifinal, gasoline cost 20 cents per gallon and the Bulldogs lost to Colorado College 4-3. That’s about all the history to be found in the quartet of teams vying for the 2013 title.

This year, history takes a back seat. The future is in the driver’s seat.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at amerritt@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @a_merritt.