Preview: Quinnipiac vs. St. Cloud State
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
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For any of the four teams involved in this year's Frozen Four, a win on Saturday night would clinch a first-ever national championship. In fact, only Yale has ever advanced even this far and not since 1952.
The berth of these four teams, including Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State, in the Frozen Four marks the first time the national semifinals do not feature at least one of Boston College, Boston University, Denver, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota or Wisconsin. These schools, often regarded as college hockey royalty, all saw their seasons end last month.
No. 1 Quinnipiac (29-7-5) vs. No. 13 St. Cloud State (25-15-1)
Details: 8 p.m. (ET) Thursday, Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh
Radio: Dial Global syndication, Sirius/XM Ch. 91, ncaa.com
After disappointing runs in their league tournaments, both Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State returned to form and clinched bids to the 2013 Frozen Four.
Quinnipiac overcame a frustrating start to the tournament, coming back from a two-goal, third-period deficit against Canisius in its first tournament game. The Bobcats followed that up with a dominating 5-1 win over Union in the East Regional final. St. Cloud State, on the other hand, qualified for its first Frozen Four with a pair of wire-to-wire victories in Toledo, Ohio, against Notre Dame and Miami.
Until 2010, the Huskies were, perhaps, the best program in the nation without a win in the NCAA tournament. After surpassing that hurdle, they were among the best without a Frozen Four appearance. The wins last weekend helped SCSU coach Bob Motzko accomplish that goal as well.
"I kept seeing a stat where we were 1-9 in NCAA play," said Motzko, a St. Cloud State graduate. "Well, we've changed that. We're 3-1 in our last four. … Hopefully, this is a sign for ourselves that we've broken that barrier, and we can continue to get into the tournament and find success."
Finding success for SCSU means doing more of what helped them reached this point. A deep group of forwards, led by Hobey Hat Trick member Drew LeBlanc, and Ben Hanowski has been one of the nation's most productive all season. The Huskies are second nationally in scoring with 3.41 goals-per game, and their forwards are as diverse as they are productive. LeBlanc and junior Nic Dowd play the pivot on the top scoring lines for the Huskies. Gifted wingers Hanowski and freshman Jonny Brodzinski highlight a strong group.
LeBlanc returned from a broken leg a season ago to lead the Huskies in scoring. Early-season injuries to Hanowski and freshman Joey Benik — who scored four goals in Toledo — gave other players a chance to play big roles for the Huskies. Brodzinski (22 goals) and Kalle Kossila (15 goals), specifically, became two of the top freshmen in the country.
"(Hanowski) gets injured very early in the season," Motzko said. "We lost him for a month. We put two freshmen on LeBlanc's line. By Christmas time, those two freshmen are two of the leading scorers in the country. … They're good freshmen, but they're freshmen. Their numbers are pointed to a guy like Drew LeBlanc."
Against Quinnipiac, even the most talented teams find it difficult to generate the level of offense they're accustomed to. The Bobcats allow the fewest shots per game in the country at 23.4. Puck possession is a major part of QU's success on the season. However, their defensive excellence isn't a product of passive play.
"We're aggressive. We attack," Pecknold said. "We don't know the word 'trap,' and there's certainly teams in hockey that trap. 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."
Quinnipiac outshot both Canisius and Union in winning the East Regional in Providence, R.I. The Bobcats were aggressive on the forecheck and moved quickly with the puck. The rare times that Canisius or Union capitalized on the Bobcats' up-tempo offense, QU goaltender and Hobey Hat Trick finalist Eric Hartzell was there to bail them out. In the first period against Union, his save on a Max Novak breakaway kept the game scoreless before Matthew Peca's natural hat trick in 3:12 put the game well in hand for QU.
"I think in Hartzell's case, he came in as a freshman and had talent and size and athleticism," Pecknold said. "He didn't play a lot as a freshman. We were patient with him and let him evolve slowly."
Four of Hartzell's classmates are among the Bobcats' regular on the blue line. The experienced group is overshadowed by Peca, Conor and Kellen Jones, Jordan Samuels-Thomas and QU's other talented forwards. Still, senior defensemen Mike Dalhuisen, Loren Barron, Zach Davies and Zack Currie are a big, physical corps that lets QU's forwards and Hartzell excel.
Currie, the Bobcats' captain, knew entering this season, especially after Pecknold opted to remain in Hamden, Conn., depsite an overture from Massachusetts, that the group could do something special.
"I think to start off, even at the end of last year, we realized with the group that we had coming back and the kids we had coming in that we had that opportunity," Currie said. "And, at the start of this year, we certainly knew we had a chance to do something, and we addressed that and we set goals as a team. And those were step-by-step goals all the way up to winning the national championship. We believe we had the team and opportunity to do it."