2013 Frozen Four: NCAA title assured of going to first-time winner

By DJ Powers

Scott Wilson - University of Massachusetts-Lowell

Photo: UMass Lowell forward and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Scott Wilson heads into the Frozen Four on the heels of a strong performance in the NCAA regionals (courtesy of Michael Tureski/Icon SMI)

The four-team field is now set for the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four, which takes place at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA on Apr. 11th and 13th. None of the four teams taking part in this year's tournament have won an NCAA hockey title, so there will be a new national champion that will also win their program’s first-ever National Championship.

This year’s participants are UMass Lowell, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and Yale. All of the teams except Yale are making their Frozen Four debut. Yale is making their second Frozen Four appearance and first since 1952.

This year’s Frozen Four features 15 NHL prospects and two of the three Hobey Hat Trick finalists.

The two semi-final games will take place on Apr. 11th and will be aired live on ESPN2. UMass Lowell will face off against Yale in the first semi-final game at 4:30 pm ET. Quinnipiac will take on St. Cloud State in the second semi-final game, which begins at 8:00 pm ET.

The two winners will play for the National Championship on Saturday, Apr. 13th at 7:00 pm ET. The game will be aired live on ESPN.

Semi-final #1: University of Massachusetts-Lowell vs. Yale University

This year’s Frozen Four marks the 12th meeting between these two teams, and the first since 1999.

UMass Lowell reached the Frozen Four after defeating Wisconsin and New Hampshire, respectively, to win the Northeast Regional. The River Hawks enter the Frozen Four as the hottest team in the nation, riding a seven-game winning streak. UMass Lowell’s potent combination of a stifling defense and great offense depth has been particularly evident in post-season play this season. But it has also been a process that, with some personnel changes, has continually grown since last season.

“There were changes because you have a different goalie that played in the regional last year,” said head coach Norm Bazin. “Obviously we feel Doug's capable also. But right now Connor's running with the ball. You've got three new defensemen that weren't playing in the regional last year that are playing for us currently and you've got three to four new forwards in the forward line in the regional last year.  So our goal coming into the season was trying to improve upon last year.  And I think we've done that.  It's a strong buy‑in factor by the whole club.  I think the kids should be commended because they've had a very selfless approach to each and every day.  They come to work and they try to improve. And we're still trying to improve this week leading up to the (Frozen Four) games.  And that's our goal all the way along and so far it's been good for us.”

The biggest challenge facing Yale will be in solving freshman sensation Connor Hellebuyck (WPG). The Commerce, MI has been a big reason behind UMass Lowell’s march to the Frozen Four. He leads the nation in winning percentage (.909), goals-against average (1.31) and save percentage (.953). Hellebuyck also co-leads the nation with six shutouts. He was named the Northeast Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after stopping a combined 59 of 60 shots that he faced.

Junior Chad Ruhwedel anchors UMass Lowell’s rock-solid blueline. The San Diego, CA native leads all River Hawks defensemen with 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) and co-leads the team with a plus-17. One area where Ruhwedel has excelled this season has been on UMass Lowell’s special teams. Of his seven goals, four have come on special teams – three on the power-play and one shorthanded.

Sophomore Scott Wilson (PIT) and junior Joseph Pendenza co-lead UMass Lowell’s outstanding offensive attack with 37 points apiece. Pittsburgh fans in attendance will get an up close and personal look at a future Penguin in Wilson. The Oakville, ON native co-leads the River Hawks with 16 goals and is playing some of his best hockey right now. Wilson posted the Northeast Regional game-winner and added two assists en route to earning a spot on the All-Regional team.

Pendenza leads UMass Lowell with 23 assists and is one player that can skate with the opposing teams’ fastest skaters. The Wilmington, MA has the ability to get up to speed quickly which makes him particularly dangerous in the River Hawks’ transition game.

Against the rest of the field, UMass-Lowell has previously met both Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State only once. The River Hawks last met Quinnipiac in 2008, while their only previous meeting with St. Cloud State took place way back in 1987.

Yale reached the Frozen Four after posting stunning wins over Minnesota and North Dakota, respectively, in the West Regional. The Bulldogs are the first Ivy League team to reach the Frozen Four since Cornell did it in 2003.

The biggest challenge facing UMass Lowell will be in slowing down the Bulldogs. Yale is a superb transition team that uses their team speed quite effectively. And nowhere was that more evident in the West Regional than when the Bulldogs capitalized on their opportunities.

The Bulldogs’ lethal top line of juniors Jesse Root and Kenny Agostino (CGY) and senior Andrew Miller combined to post seven points (four goals, three assists) in leading the team to their first Frozen Four in 61 years. Root and Agostino also have unique ties to Pittsburgh. For Root, the Frozen Four will be a homecoming. The local product netted both game-winners in the West Regional en route to being named the Most Outstanding Player. Agostino, who saw his NHL rights traded from the Penguins to the Calgary Flames prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament, currently leads Yale in both points (40) and goals (17). Miller, the Bulldogs’ captain and a collegiate free agent, leads the team with seven power-play goals.

Junior Gus Young (COL) anchors Yale’s excellent skating defensive corps. The Dedham, MA native is in the midst of his best collegiate season, giving the Bulldogs both toughness and offensive contributions (two goals, six assists) from the blueline. Young’s defensive partner, Rob O’Gara (BOS) and forward Stu Wilson are part of an outstanding group of freshmen whose stepped-up play has been key in propelling the Bulldogs to the Frozen Four.

“This freshman class has made a huge contribution to our program,” said head coach Keith Allain. “And I think a lot of the credit goes to the upperclassmen, because the way they embrace these kids when they walk in the door in September and really impart upon them what our culture is like and what it requires to be a successful hockey player here at Yale. Robbie and Stu have been mentioned, but Carson Cooper has been a great contributor.  Mitch Witek has been a great contributor.  And Ryan Obuchowski has contributed a lot, as well.  So it's been real, real important to the level of success we've had so far that those guys have been involved in our team.”

After struggling through the ECAC Tournament, senior netminder Jeff Malcolm found his groove again in the West Regional. The Lethbridge, AB native stopped a combined 50 of 53 shots that he faced. Malcolm currently sports an 18-6-2 record that includes two shutouts.

Against the rest of the field, Yale has faced Quinnipiac three times this season with the most recent meeting coming in the ECAC Tournament consolation game on Mar. 23rd. The Bulldogs’ last and only previous meeting with St. Cloud State took place back in 2004.

Semi-final #2: Quinnipiac University vs. St. Cloud State University

This year’s Frozen Four marks the fifth meeting between these two teams, and the first since 2010. The match-up pits the nation’s top defensive team in Quinnipiac against the nation’s top scoring team in St. Cloud State. It also features two of the three Hobey Hat Trick finalists.

Quinnipiac, the East Regional champions, reached the Frozen Four after defeating Canisius and Union College, respectively. One of the keys to the Bobcats success this season has been their stingy defense, both in even strength and shorthanded situations. Quinnipiac possesses the nation’s top defense that has allowed an average of 1.63 goals per game and a total of just 67 goals this season. The Bobcats are also the nation’s top penalty-killing team, clicking at a clip of 90.6 percent.

Senior goaltender Eric Hartzell and senior defenseman Zach Currie lead Quinnipiac on the back end. Hartzell, a Hobey Hat Trick finalist, leads the nation with 29 wins and is the backbone of the Bobcats defense. In two of his last three games, Hartzell has held the opposition to one goal or less. The White Bear Lake, MN native has also become a top collegiate free agent for NHL teams to target.

Currie, the Bobcats’ team captain, has been one of the pillars on Quinnipiac’s veteran blueline. The defensive defenseman from Victoria, BC has eight points (one goal, seven assists) to date. As Currie explains, the great working relationship between the Bobcats defensive corps and Hartzell is a big reason behind the team’s success this season.

“I think part of it is obviously we have the four senior defensemen and Eric as a senior,” said Currie. “And along with the junior in Zach Tolkinen and sophomore in Dan Federico, I think a big part of it is it goes both ways that obviously we're able to play comfortably and relaxed when we know we have Hartzell back there behind us. At the same time, we do a lot of stuff, not even just as defensive players but as a team that makes Eric's job easier.  I think it goes both ways that we work together, and obviously we've put a lot of work in for the four years to build that relationship.”

In addition to contending with Quinnipiac’s stingy defense, St. Cloud State will also need to find a way to keep the Bobcats’ dynamic top line of sophomore Matthew Peca (TBL) and junior twins Connor and Kellen Jones (EDM) in check. The trio wreaked havoc in the East Regional, accounting for 13 points (six goals, seven assists). In the regional championship game versus Union College, Peca set a new NCAA Tournament record for the quickest completion of a hat trick. He accomplished the feat (a natural hat trick) in a span of 3:12 in the opening period en route to being named the Most Outstanding Player.

Another notable forward to watch is junior Jordan Samuels-Thomas (WPG). The power forward from West Hartford, CT leads the Bobcats with 16 goals and ranks third on the team with 27 points. Samuels-Thomas has been one of the Bobcats’ clutch performers all season. His five game-winners lead the team while his six power-play tallies co-lead the team.

Against the rest of the field, Quinnipiac’s last and only previous meeting with UMass Lowell was in 2008. The Bobcats have faced Yale three times this season with the most recent meeting coming in the ECAC Tournament consolation game on Mar. 23rd.

St. Cloud State reached the Frozen Four after posting wins over Notre Dame and Miami, respectively, in the Midwest Regional. The biggest challenge facing Quinnipiac will be slowing down the Huskies’ high-powered offensive attack. St. Cloud State comes into the Frozen Four having posted the most goals in the nation (140) with the NCAA’s second-best offense that is averaging 3.41 goals per game.

The driving force behind the Huskies offense is red-shirted senior and co-captain Drew LeBlanc. The Hobey Hat Trick finalist leads the team with 50 points (13 goals, 37 assists). His 37 assists also lead the nation. In addition to his point production, Leblanc’s leadership has also been an important part of St. Cloud State’s success.

“Playing with Drew LeBlanc is an unbelievable experience,” junior Cory Thorson said of LeBlanc. “You can see how great of a player being up for the Hobey Baker, and hopefully he wins that as well, which he's much deserving of that award. But he's a guy that's at the rink six hours a day. He's teaching before he's at the rink for about five hours. He's an absolute workhorse. He goes the extra mile in any way. And it definitely rubs off on the other 24 guys in the locker room.  And it shows in our record this year, as well as this Frozen Four appearance.”

One of the keys to St. Cloud State’s excellent season has been the contribution from their freshmen class, which include Joey Benik and Johnny Brodzinski. Benik is coming off of a terrific performance in the Midwest Regional where he posted five points (four goals, one assist) including both game winners en route to being named the Most Outstanding Player. Brodzinski, a 2013 NHL Draft-eligible forward, currently leads the nation in overall plus/minus (+27) and rookie goal-scoring (22).

Junior Nick Jensen (DET) anchors the Huskies’ excellent and very mobile defensive corps. The Rogers, MN native has become one of the nation’s top offensive defensemen. He currently leads St. Cloud State in defensive scoring with 29 points (four goals, 27 assists). His 29 points also leads all NHL-drafted defensemen.

Rounding out the Huskies on the back end is sophomore netminder Ryan Faragher. The Fort Frances, ON native sports a 24-13-1 record that includes three shutouts. Faragher was superb in the Midwest Regional, stopping 37 of the 39 combined shots that he faced en route to earning a spot on the All-Regional team.

Against the rest of the field, St. Cloud State has had only one previous meeting with UMass Lowell and Yale. The Huskies last faced UMass Lowell way back in 1987 and last met Yale in 2004.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF