It’s not exactly accurate to say that all four of this year’s Frozen Four teams are first-time participants. Technically, Yale has been to the national semifinals before.
It’s just that the last time the Bulldogs were among the final four college hockey teams, it was 1952, and the NCAA tournament was comprised of only two rounds. The “final” four was also the only four. Also, none of the coaches of this year’s semifinalists were alive yet.
No matter what happens on the Consol Energy Center ice in Pittsburgh April 11 and 13, history will be made. For the first time since the NCAA tournament expanded beyond four teams, all of the Frozen Four teams are making their first trip to the national semifinals, which of course means there will be a first-time national champion this year — the second time in three years after Minnesota-Duluth’s 2011 win, but also the second time in the last 20 years, since Maine won its first of two titles in 1993.
Suffice to say, a lot of things are different in college hockey this year.
“When you can talk about four schools, and obviously somebody’s going to win the trophy at the end here, it’s exciting to know that somebody new is going to be a national champion, and everyone’s going into it with an even playing field,” said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin, whose River Hawks rose from a four-win team in 2010-11 to Hockey East champion this season. “There’s going to be some new contender that’s going to take away the prize. So we’re thrilled to be one of the four competing teams, and I think all four teams have an equal chance of taking the trophy home.”
UMass-Lowell (28-10-1) is one of three New England teams headed to Pittsburgh for the final three games of the college hockey season. UML will square off with Yale (20-12-3) at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, followed by No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac (29-7-5) against St. Cloud State (25-15-1) in the second semifinal. The winners of those games play at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 13, for a national championship to be remembered.
The Frozen Four field might surprise more casual observers, but for the programs themselves, it’s been a long time coming.
Coach Rand Pecknold (Bedford, N.H.) has overseen the past 18 years of Quinnipiac hockey, and after a few rough introductory seasons, he’s helped the Bobcats win 20 or more games in 11 of those seasons. This year is inarguably the greatest in the program’s history, as the Bobcats ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the nation, holding that spot for the final month. While they slumped at the wrong time and got bounced by Brown in the ECAC semifinals, the Bobcats rebounded in the NCAA East Regional in Providence. They stormed back to beat Canisius with three unanswered goals in the third period, preventing a 16-beats-1 seed upset, and the next night Matthew Peca scored a natural hat trick in the first period to put QU on cruise control past Union in the regional final.
The Bobcats’ goal-scoring capabilities were entertaining to watch in Providence, for sure, but that’s not really what has gotten them to Pittsburgh. Quinnipiac has the nation’s best defense, allowing just 1.63 goals per game — nearly half a goal per game better than Lowell, which is third-best in the country. The keystone to the defense has been goaltender Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker Award finalist who’s in the top 10 among the nation’s netminders in goals-against average (1.55) and save percentage (.933).
The Bobcats also employ a stifling defense that has allowed a nation-leading 23.44 shots on goal per game.
“We’re aggressive. We attack. We don’t know the word ‘trap,’ ” Pecknold said. “We want to go and we want to possess the puck. And that’s how we play defense, with a good offense and a good forecheck.”
Those will be key ingredients if the Bobcats want to win their first national title. And they’ve been honed over a year of hard-won games in the ECAC, winning their first-ever Cleary Cup as regular-season champions. Still, it’s possibly none of the Frozen Four teams are as battle-tested as UMass-Lowell, which emerged from Hockey East’s grueling 27-game league schedule as regular season and tournament champions.
“When you play UNH, when you play Maine, when you play Boston College any given weekend, I think you grow a thick skin,” Bazin said. “You know how hard it is to compete for every single puck, and it really prepared us for a great regional.”
Lowell rolled through the Northeast Regional, dispatching Wisconsin in the opening round and beating a familiar foe in UNH to earn its ticket to the Frozen Four.
“I thought our field was chock full of great teams and I wasn’t disappointed. Wisconsin, somebody mentioned earlier, it was a much closer game than the score indicated,” Bazin said. “We knew that and we were expecting that. The second game obviously was as close as it could be. Again, we’re thrilled to be the representative from that region. However, from our standpoint, the league has really prepared us well.”
The River Hawks also have made their way on the backs of the defense, and specifically freshman Connor Hellebuyck, who has emerged as the nation’s top goaltender. Though he didn’t even make his second start of the year until after Thanksgiving and missed significant time due to injury and illness in the middle of the year, Hellebuyck leads the country in GAA (1.31) and save percentage (.953) and has amassed a stunning 20-2-0 record. His .909 win percentage is far and away better than any goaltender this year.
Quality netminding, Pecknold said, is the reason teams like the four headed to Pittsburgh can have so much success in college hockey, unlike the traditional power structures found in basketball and football.
“I think goaltending is a big issue, from the recruiting standpoint and creating parity in college hockey and playing individual games,” he said. “You can outshoot a team 65 to eight and lose that hockey game. The game of basketball, if you’re that dominant, you’re going to win.”
Yale’s Jeff Malcolm might not have the eye-popping numbers of Hellebuyck or Hartzell, but his 2.35 GAA and .916 save percentage have been good enough. The Bulldogs are the perfect example this year of how turning it on at the right time is sometimes all you need to contend for hardware. After a five-game losing streak in February, they were 13-10-9 and an even 9-9-1 in ECAC. Since then, however, they’ve lost only two games, going 8-2-0, and they survived a brutal West Regional, upsetting Minnesota and North Dakota to earn the program’s first national semifinal berth in 61 years.
“For us as a program, one of the things we want to be about is about growth. And we try to get better each and every day we come to practice. And I thought we played very good against St. Lawrence in our league playoffs, that second round,” said coach Keith Allain (Worcester, Mass.), whose team swept St. Lawrence to advance to the ECAC semifinals, where it lost to eventual champion Union in Atlantic City, N.J. “And I thought we were back on our game last weekend. So we see Atlantic City as an aberration.”
“An aberration” might be how a lot of people look at this year’s Frozen Four: four programs that some might not be able to accurately place on a map, bringing exactly zero previous NCAA titles with them. But St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, whose team earned its Pittsburgh trip by overtaking Notre Dame and Miami in the Midwest Regional after becoming surprise co-winners of the WCHA regular-season title, said this year is a true sign of the times.
“These aren’t flukes. This is the real thing,” he said. “Hockey is in a great growth spurt right now. I know people are talking that the named schools didn’t make it this year, but I think the right schools made it this year. We won our league (regular-season) championship. Lowell won their league championship and their playoff championship. Three of the teams won their championships.
“These are the right teams that made it this year,” Motzko said. “There isn’t a Cinderella story.”
Maybe not, but it ought to be a very good tale.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.