April 13, 2013

Yale, QU ready to battle in improbable, all-Connecticut final

By Andrew Merritt

Jeff Malcolm (left) and Eric Hartzell will both be looking to help their squads capture the first national championship in program history. (Dave Arnold Photography)

PITTSBURGH – There are 88 panes of ½-inch Plexiglas separating the ice surface at the Consol Energy Center from the outside world.

Those pristine sheets of shatter-resistant acrylic thermoplastic, and the boards they’re attached to, are the only barrier between the fans, the media, and the hype from the game that Quinnipiac and Yale will play here Saturday night.

It is a most improbable national championship matchup between two small schools from a small city in a small state, playing in a “small” conference – at least as far as stature and recognition go. Although Yale is the oldest college hockey program in the country, having played the nation’s first game in 1896, it has never been a traditional power, and Quinnipiac, well, Quinnipiac was playing a Division 2 independent schedule just 20 years ago.

Yet after six and a half months of games, Yale (21-12-3) and Quinnipiac (30-7-5) are the only two teams who still have one left to play. They will meet for the fourth and final time this season at 7:05 Saturday night. The three previous meetings have decided bragging rights. The fourth meeting will earn one of the programs their first national title.

They represent a league that isn’t usually on the shorthand list of high-quality college conferences. But if the ECAC doesn’t have the stature of Hockey East, the WCHA or the recently-defunct CCHA, right now it has the two best teams in the game, the only ones who still have a chance to be called the kings of the land.

They’re separated by less than eight miles. You can walk from Yale’s campus to Quinnipiac’s without ever leaving Whitney Avenue, a congested thoroughfare connecting the small city of New Haven to the even smaller town of Hamden.

A rivalry. A league’s reputation. The historic matchup of two programs that have never played for a national title before. They’re all interesting storylines. But for the two groups of young men who will actually play in Saturday night’s game, all of that stuff is outside the glass. The focus is what happens on the inside of those 88 panes.

“I think this time of year you can't get wrapped up on what the outside says,” said Jordan Samuels-Thomas (Windsor, Conn.), the only player on the Quinnipiac roster from Connecticut. “All that matters is that the 28 guys in your locker room believe that you can do it. Any disrespect we get from any leagues or teams or coaches doesn't really matter, as long as we believe we can do it and we reach our goals.”

Ah, the disrespect. There’s been plenty for both teams. Quinnipiac held the No. 1 ranking for a long stretch of the season, yet there were always grumblings that the Bobcats weren’t tested enough by the weaker teams in their conference. And Yale only got into the tournament because Notre Dame prevented upset-minded Michigan from knocking the Bulldogs out with a win in the CCHA final, so they’ve had an unspoken “they-don’t-belong-here” asterisk attached to them since the tournament began.

The disrespect has faded, though. Late Saturday night, either Quinnipiac or Yale will lift the NCAA championship trophy, and no amount of perceived respect matters as much as that.

The teams got here via difficult roads – perhaps moreso for Yale. The Bulldogs knocked off Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Regional to earn the program’s first semifinal berth in 61 years, and then outclassed a UMass-Lowell team that had torn through Hockey East and looked like a team ready to lift its own first national title.

Yale jumped on Lowell early, and although the River Hawks tied the game with two goals in 14 seconds during the second period, that was the only life the Hockey East champions showed. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs played a consistently strong game throughout, and Andrew Miller’s overtime goal put them in the title game. It was the 17th goal of the year for Miller, tying him with Kenny Agostino for the team lead.

For Miller and his five fellow seniors, Saturday is the final game of their college careers, no matter what happens. But that doesn’t mean they’ll do anything differently. Neither does the fact that Quinnipiac swept all three games against the Bulldogs this year.

“Yeah, I think during an NCAA Tournament game, first of all, what happened in the regular season in the playoffs doesn't really matter at this point,” senior Antoine Laganiere said. “It's just a one and done. It's a whole new time.”

The Bobcats have 11 seniors set to play in their collegiate swan song Saturday night, including goaltender Eric Hartzell, who made 33 saves in Quinnipiac’s runaway 4-1 win over St. Cloud in the semifinals. Hartzell found out Friday that he isn’t the Hobey Baker Award winner – St. Cloud’s Drew LeBlanc picked up that honor – but it’s safe to say he and his teammates care more about the trophy they can grab Saturday night.

They got to this point because of a belief – in a system, in a school, in an idea coach Rand Pecknold had that a small college in the middle of Connecticut could become a hockey power. Pecknold has said on many occasions that he knew the program would eventually rise – at least as far as being Top 10 in the country, if not all the way to No. 1 – but he needed his players to buy in as well.

“I knew this was going to be the best team we've ever had from a talent perspective from a compete perspective,” Pecknold said. “This was going to be a veteran team. The kids definitely buy in. They listen and do what's asked.

“Did I think we'd go to the Frozen Four and play?” Pecknold said.”I mean, I knew it was a possibility. But was I thinking, ‘hey, we're going to do this?’ No, nobody thinks that. It's really hard to get to this point. And I think just always in general, if you have a great goalie and you get in the tournament, you know if he gets hot, you can do anything. Kids prove that all the time.”

A great goalie is exactly what Quinnipiac has in Hartzell. The Bobcats also have some scoring – senior Jeremy Langlois leads with 31 points, and Samuels-Thomas has been nearly unstoppable since the tournament began. Saturday night, Quinnipiac also has a chance to stick it to its cross-town rival one more time

But the Bobcats insist their mentality hasn’t changed going into the title game. After 42 games – 30 of them wins – it’s about what has worked, not what might work. The same goes for Yale, which has played six fewer games (and won nine fewer), but hasn’t lost since that ECAC consolation game against the Bobcats.

“I mean, we do what we've done all year long,” Allain said. “Nothing is going to change. We have our game day routine. The way we warm up in the morning, the way we warm up when we get to the rink. We encourage our guys to have a good pre-game skate on the ice here prior to the game. But we pride ourselves in being ready, and we pride ourselves on playing fast and pushing the tempo, and that's what we'll try to do [Saturday] night.”

It’s not a sexy matchup. Not a lot of people would have predicted either of these teams making the national title game, and even fewer would have predicted both. The history of the NCAA tournament is rife with championships won by “big” programs like Boston College, Wisconsin, and North Dakota – not these two teams, who have for many years lurked outside the spotlight.

But that’s the thing about history – every once in a while, you get to make some more.

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