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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Frozen Four has a fresh look

By David Albright

New city. New cast. New champion.

As the 2013 Frozen Four skates into Pittsburgh's CONSOL Energy Center this weekend, it marks the first time college hockey's championship event has made a stop in the state of Pennsylvania.

So it's somewhat fitting the four schools (Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, UMass-Lowell and Yale) that advanced to the final weekend of the season are essentially doing so for the first time.

Yes, Yale was one of the final four teams playing 61 years ago, but the 1952 NCAA tournament (won by Michigan) had only four participants so it's not nearly analogous to today's format in which schools need to win two games to advance to the Frozen Four.

Either way, this marks the first time that three schools are making their Frozen Four debuts. And it guarantees a first-time champion for only the second time in the past 20 seasons, with Minnesota-Duluth being the last to accomplish the feat, in 2011.

Also of note about this year's Frozen Four field is that for 10 consecutive seasons at least one school that competes at the Division II or III level in sports other than hockey has reached the Frozen Four. (St. Cloud State and UMass-Lowell are this year's representatives, although the latter is moving up to Division I in all sports in the fall.) And this year marks the first time since 1991 that no school with a Football Bowl Subdivision football program has advanced to the Frozen Four.

So is this year's "No Blue Bloods Needed" field a fluke or a possible sign of what lies ahead?

"There's more opportunities now for all of us to get higher-end talent, which is causing the deadly word no one likes to use, which is parity," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. "You're seeing it also in league play now throughout the country.

"These aren't flukes. This is the real thing. I know people are talking that the name schools didn't make it this year, but I think the right schools made it this year."

Another consideration against the fluke factor, at least for this year, is that three of the four schools also were regular-season champions. Only Yale's third-place finish in the ECAC didn't merit a trophy prior to the postseason.

If the story of this postseason has been to expect the unexpected, it's probably not safe to make any assumptions about how the three games in Pittsburgh will play out.

The first national semifinal has West Region champion Yale facing Northeast winner UMass-Lowell (4:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN2HD). The nightcap has Midwest champ St. Cloud State against East Region winner Quinnipiac (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2HD). The winners will play for the national championship at 7 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPNHD).

Quinnipiac (29-7-5), the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, has been the most consistent team all season -- at one point ripping off a 21-game (18-0-3) unbeaten streak. The Bobcats are led by senior goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist Eric Hartzell (29-6-5, 1.55 goals-against average, .933 save percentage).

Up front the Q relies on a balanced attack that sees points coming from different lines on different nights. To that end, sophomore forward Matthew Peca (15 goals, 15 assists, 30 points) is tied for 99th in the nation in scoring at 0.81 points per game.

"We're a good definition of team," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. "We're well-rounded. We're deep. We barely have a scorer in the top 100 in the country but we have four lines and they all contribute."

UMass-Lowell (28-10-2) is the other No. 1 regional seed still playing, and the River Hawks are riding a nation-best seven-game winning streak into Pittsburgh. And like Quinnipiac, Lowell is led by a very good goaltender. Connor Hellebuyck owns the nation's top spot in winning percentage (20-2-0), goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.953) and shutouts (6).

And he's only a freshman.

"Connor has been great," UMass-Lowell junior forward Josh Holmstrom said. "I don't think he's playing like a freshman right now. He's very calm in his demeanor and he doesn't let too many things get to him."

St. Cloud State (25-15-1), the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region with wins over Notre Dame and Miami to advance, has the other Hobey Baker finalist in the Frozen Four in senior forward Drew LeBlanc (13-37-50). The fifth-year player sat out the majority of last season after sustaining an injury and had an opportunity to turn pro last summer but opted to return for his redshirt senior season.

"I think he had the feeling that he had unfinished business and he wanted to come back and do it the right way," Motzko said. "He was coming back more for team reasons, and I couldn't be any happier for him. It was a pretty gutsy call for him because he had opportunities to leave."

Yale (20-12-3), the last team to qualify for the 16-team NCAA field, is the first Ivy League school to advance to the Frozen Four since Cornell in 2003. And the Bulldogs, along with Quinnipiac, are trying to become the first ECAC national champion since Harvard in 1989.

If both Yale and Quinnipiac win Thursday night, Saturday's national title game would be played by two schools located just 7 miles apart on the same street (Whitney Avenue). The Bobcats swept the two-game season series against Yale and beat the Bulldogs in the third-place game at the ECAC tournament. The combined score of the three Quinnipiac wins was 13-3.

"It's great for the ECAC to have two teams in the [Frozen Four]," Yale senior forward Andrew Miller said. "We want a shot to play for the national championship. 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."

David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com.