Lesser in household name only
Frozen Four teams give national semis a fresh perspective
Teams participating in the 2013 Men’s Frozen Four won’t wear, "Hello, my name is" stickers during this week’s games in Pittsburgh, but the gesture wouldn’t be inappropriate.
A refreshing lineup takes the ice for Thursday’s two national semifinal games at the Consol Energy Center. Three teams -- Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and UMass-Lowell -- are Frozen Four first-timers. The fourth, Yale, hasn’t advanced this far since 1952, the “Frozen Four” term not yet coined.
“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,” UMass-Lowell head coach Norm Bazin said. “There's going to be some new contender that's going to take away the prize.”
Which means players and coaches from traditional powers such as North Dakota, Minnesota, Boston College, Michigan and Denver will turn on the television with the rest of us.
Defending national champion Boston College lost in the first round of this year’s 16-team NCAA tournament. The Eagles had won three of the past five Frozen Fours (208, '10 and '12). Neither the 2011 national champion, Minnesota-Duluth, nor the 2009 national champion, Boston University, made the 2013 NCAA tournament cut.
Instead, it’s the Yale Bulldogs, UMass-Lowell River Hawks, Quinnipiac Bobcats and St. Cloud State Huskies. Two teams won their conferences (UMass-Lowell the Hockey East regular-season and tournament titles and St. Cloud State the regular-season Western Collegiate Hockey Conference title).
Two of the three finalists for the 33rd annual Hobey Baker Memorial Award, college hockey’s top individual honor to be announced Friday, will play this weekend -- Quinnipiac senior goalie Eric Hartzell and St. Cloud State senior forward Drew LeBlanc. BC sophomore forward Johnny Gaudreau is the other finalist.
The four head coaches of the respective schools were among the seven finalists for the 2013 Spencer Penrose Award recognizing the Division I coach of the year -- Bazin, Keith Allain from Yale, Bob Motzko of St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac's Rand Pecknold. Enrico Blasi from Miami, Dave Burkholder of Niagara and Minnesota State-Mankato's Mike Hastings are the other finalists.
And, Quinnipiac is the nation’s top-ranked team.
“These aren't flukes,” Motzko said. “This is the real thing. 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.”
UMass-Lowell and Yale play Thursday’s first semifinal at 4:30 p.m. ET, followed by Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State at 8 p.m. ET. Saturday’s national championship game is set at 8 p.m. ET, with all games on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ home ice.
Northeast Regional champions UMass-Lowell (28-10-2) has re-energized under Bazin, in his second season at his alma mater. The River Hawks suffered through a five-win season only three years ago but do have championship heritage. They won three national titles in 1979, ’81 and ’82 as a Division II program.
“With this tournament being spread out a little bit, I think you can wipe the slate clean as far as who has momentum and who doesn't,” Bazin said. “I think all four teams feel pretty good about themselves. They just finished off with two wins in the last two games, and everybody's on an even playing field.”
West Regional champion Yale (20-12-3) entered this year’s NCAA tournament as the 16th and final seed, outlasting a mini-slump at the end of the regular season to rebound big in the tournament.
“Obviously they're a great team,” Allain said of UMass-Lowell. “They won the regular-season [Hockey East]. They won the league championship playoffs. And a couple of things that really stand out are the team defensive play and the pace they play at, and they're also a team we think, like us, that competes very, very hard. So we think it will be a great matchup.”
East Regional champion Quinnipiac (29-7-5) is the on-paper favorite. The Hartzell-led defense and a senior-laden roster balance a sometimes-tepid offense.
“We're aggressive,” Pecknold said. “We attack. We don't know the word ‘trap,’ and there's certainly teams in hockey that trap now in the NHL. 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.”
Midwest Regional champion St. Cloud State (25-15-1) knows what it faces.
“They're the best team almost from wire-to-wire,” Motzko said of Quinnipiac, the tournament's top overall seed. “No. 1 team in the country, who clearly is deserving because they proved it all year long.”
Pecknold says he’s a Motzko fan.
“They've always got good power plays and they always find ways to score goals and compete hard,” Pecknold said of St. Cloud State. “We'll have to find a way to shut that down.”
There are undercurrents. If Quinnipiac and Yale win their semifinals, it sets up a Connecticut backyard brawl. The two schools are conference rivals within quick driving distance of each other in New Haven. Quinnipiac won all three regular-season meetings.
The team captains echo each other, eschewing bulletin-board material.
“We want a shot to play for a national championship,” Yale senior forward Andrew Miller said. “So we've put ourselves in a position to do that. If we get the opportunity to play in a national championship game, that would be great.”
“We realize that it's a huge accomplishment to get to the Frozen Four, and we're ecstatic about reaching that,” Quinnipiac senior defenseman Zach Currie said. “But we're going for the national championship.”