Well, the Frozen Four is finally upon us, and in just three days' time, a first-time national champion will be crowned.
And actually, I guess it's important to note that these teams are all relative newcomers to the grandest stage in college hockey, given that the only one of Yale, UMass Lowell, St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac to make the Frozen Four ever was the Bulldogs. In 1952. So, y'know, it's been a while; at that point, the NCAA hockey tournament was itself just four years old.
But that's what's interesting about this year's tournament. It's the first one ever — ever! — to not have the traditional Hockey East, WCHA and CCHA titans of Bostons College or University, Denver, Michigan, Miami, Minnesota, North Dakota or Wisconsin. You'll note that of that group, no teams come from traditional eastern little brother, the ECAC, but this year, both Yale and Quinnipiac do, so this is a banner year for the conference. Lowell, meanwhile, represents Hockey East, and St. Cloud fights out of the WCHA.
Another interesting thing is that in this tournament, it's a pair of No. 1 seeds in their regionals (Quinnipiac, which was No. 1 overall, and Lowell, at No. 3) taking on two No. 4s (No. 13 St. Cloud and No. 15 Yale).
Obviously, with so little history on the side of any of these schools — only Lowell has won national titles, all at the Div. 2 level, and none since the early 1980s — it's tough to say exactly what's going to happen at the CONSOL Energy Center this weekend, but let's take a stab at it anyway.
UMass Lowell vs. Yale, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
How they got there:
Lowell arrives at the Frozen Four as unequivocally the hottest team left in the field, and a terrifying force to be reckoned with. The number of losses Lowell has suffered in its last 28 games is three, and consequently took home the Hockey East regular-season and postseason titles. The number of goals Lowell has conceded since its postseason began six games ago is five. It beat Maine 4-2 and 2-1 in overtime in the Hockey East semifinals, Providence 2-1 in the semifinal, and BU 1-0 in the final. In the NCAA tournament it demolished Wisconsin 6-1 and edged UNH 2-0 in the regional final.
Yale, on the other hand, backed into the NCAA tournament as much as it possibly could have. After killing St. Lawrence in the ECAC quarters, 6-1 and 3-0, it was shutout 5-0 by Union (also an NCAA tournament team) and then 3-0 by Quinnipiac in the league's consolation game. And in the big dance, it drew the ignominious task of taking on No. 2 Minnesota, which it dispatched 3-2 in overtime, before blitzing North Dakota 4-1 to move to the Frozen Four.
The guy with the most points in this particular matchup, whom you might recognize from his having been traded to Calgary for Jarome Iginla, is Kenny Agostino, who leads the Bulldogs with 17-23-40 in just 35 games. Of course, if you watched any of his games two weeks ago, you also recognize him as the guy who scored two goals and an assist for his team, including the fastest bird-dogging on the forecheck the NCAA tournament has ever seen to set up the overtime game-winner against Minnesota.
But while Agostino has the most points, the hottest forward in this game is Penguins prospect Scott Wilson, who's tied for Lowell's lead in points, and has its most goals outright, at 16-21-37 in 40 games. How hot is he? In his last seven games — which includes a must-win at nationally-ranked Providence College to lock up the Hockey East regular-season title — he has 5-5-10, including a point on the game-winner (either a goal or assist) in each of his last four. Lowell is 21-3-1 when he has a point in any game this season.
Perhaps the best blueliner in the Frozen Four is Lowell associate captain Chad Ruhwedel, a true 200-foot defenseman in every sense of the word. He currently has 7-16-23 in 40, and was recently named the top college defenseman in New England by the New England Hockey Writers, but more importantly shoulders the weight that comes with facing the top competition thrown at the River Hawks every single night. They don't log TOI in college hockey, but he's out there probably every other shift, and it's because he can shut down anyone. There's a reason Lowell has given up more than one goal just three times in its last 13 games (13 goals against in that stretch, all against nationally-ranked teams), and he's a major part of it.
Meanwhile, Tommy Fallen is the most dynamic threat on the Yale defense corps, which features three very capable freshmen. His scoring line of 7-16-23 is identical to Ruhwedel's, though in five fewer games. And what he may lack in elite one-on-one shutdown ability, he makes up for with a strong all-around game that helps to keep the pucks away from his net; Yale is fifth in the country in per-game shot differential. He also has a tendency to score in bunches, as 11 of his 23 points this year came in multi-point efforts.
Meet the goalies:
As with Lowell itself, if you want to talk about the hottest goalies coming in, the conversation begins and comes to rather a definitive conclusion with the name "Connor Hellebuyck." The Winnipeg Jets draft pick is 20-2-0 this year, has started all of Lowell's last 15 games (after sitting out a month with various knocks), and in that time has a 1.20 GAA and .957 save percentage. And somehow, that's only slightly better than his season stats of 1.31/.953. Of those 15 starts, Lowell has won all but one. He was Hockey East tournament MVP and the Northeast Regional's most outstanding player, largely because he gave up two goals in his last four games.
This is not, however, to take anything away from the work Jeff Malcolm will do for Yale at the other end of the ice. Probably the only reason the Bulldogs were the last at-large team to make the tournament was because Malcolm, like Hellebuyck, missed five games with an injury. Yale lost all of them. Since his return, though, they're 6-2-0 and have held opponents to two goals or fewer in five, including both contests in the regionals.
What else you should know:
Yale is, for all their backing in, not unaccustomed to taking down very good teams this season, even apart from putting a bullet in Minnesota and North Dakota's hopes. Talk all you want about how weak the ECAC was, but the Bulldogs' out-of-conference schedule was littered with tough opponents, and they acquitted themselves well. Wins on the road at Denver and Colorado College early in the season buoyed their credentials considerably, and drawing BC on the road when the Eagles were still playing pretty well didn't hurt either.
However, it's probable that they haven't played a team playing as well as UMass Lowell. Again, all the stats speak for themselves, but what the River Hawks do better than any other team left in the field is at once invite its opponent to attack and frustrate them even as they do so. Lowell counters everything with speed and ferocity, and most teams, particularly those who haven't seen them playing in this form, don't know how to handle it. Look what it did to Wisconsin when defensemen tried to cheat up in the play.
Who has the edge:
It's awful difficult to pick against a team that just doesn't allow very many goals. Lowell's coach, Norm Bazin, has this team completely bought in on the system (see Leahy's interview with River Hawks captain Riley Wetmore for more on that) — almost like he's won four consecutive Coach of the Year awards from his various conferences — and the team consequently doesn't give opponents an inch.
Certainly, Agostino, Andrew Miller, and Antoine Laganiere will be a handful for the Lowell defense and Hellebuyck, as they've combined for 47 of Yale's 100 goals this season. But again, the River Hawks have been quieting noisy lines, and entire teams, really, for the entirety of their run. It would take something truly special to unlock the secrets to Bazin's style, because when it's properly used, it's almost invincible.
Quinnipiac vs. St. Cloud, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
How they got there:
Quinnipiac was the first overall seed, but didn't win its conference tournament, losing in the ECAC semis 4-0 to Brown, but they've since rebounded. As mentioned, they shut out Yale 3-0 in the league's consolation game. Then responded with a monstrous third period against Canisius to erase a two-goal deficit and win 4-3, and put Union down 5-1.
St. Cloud, meanwhile, played the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in its own bracket in emphatic fashion, after a 4-1 Final Five semifinal loss to Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament. After crushing Notre Dame 5-1, they then bounced perennial also-rans Miami 4-1 to move on to the Frozen Four.
Where Quinnipiac is concerned, this is a tough call because the Bobcats do so much by committee. Matthew Peca is probably their best all-around attacker, and scored four goals last weekend including a natural hat trick against Union to punch the Q's ticket. With that having been said, though, they have three players with 26 points this season, and top scorers Peca and Jeremy Langlois are tied with 30. Jordan Samuels-Thomas, though, leads the team with 16 goals in 41 games.
For the Huskies, though, the answer is more obvious. Drew LeBlanc had 50 points in 41 games this season, including 37 assists, putting him 11 up on the team's next-closest point-getter, Nic Dowd. LeBlanc is the setup guy for triggerman Jonny Brodzinski, assisting on half of his 22 goals this year. Moreover, though, LeBlanc (who it shouldn't surprise you to learn is a Hobey Baker finalist) is in addition to being an excellent hockey player and student-athlete, a student-teacher who's coming off a severely broken leg that limited to just 10 games last season. There's a reason St. Cloud's offense scored more goals than anyone this year.
St. Cloud's Nick Jensen is the highest-scoring defenseman in the frozen four with 31 points in 41 games this season, but that doesn't even begin to attest to the fact that in reality he's also top-class when it comes to shuttering opposing offenses. Like Ruhwedel, he eats big minutes against top competition, and is perhaps the biggest reason his team only allows 2.41 goals a night, tied for 14th in the nation.
But when it comes to top defenses, Quinnipiac knows a thing or two, because its 1.63 goals against per game is the best in the nation by a wide margin. The Bobcats allowed just 67 goals in 41 games this year. Much like the offense, the team lets everyone get a little bit of the work in, and Mike Dalhuisen is probably their biggest offensive weapon from the blue line, with eight goals and 16 points. However, Loren Barron has the same number of points, including two in his last two games.
Meet the goalies:
Quinnipiac's Eric Hartzell is certainly only evidence one can point to in saying that Hellebuyck isn't the best netminder left standing. His 1.55 GAA and .933 save percentage sparkle and, like LeBlanc, he's a Hobey Baker finalist as well. How much has his team relied on him? He's played every period of every game save for three this year: a 4-0 loss to Robert Morris in which he got the hook halfway through, a game against AIC he didn't play in because AIC is terrible, and a 10-0 win over Cornell where they gave him the third period off because the game ended 10-0. He's a rock, and has lost just six games out of the 40 he's played.
At the other end of the ice, Ryan Faragher has gotten a similar workload. He's been in 39 games, and gotten just two full nights off all season. His slightly diminished stats — 2.22/.916 — could be attributed to the fact that the WCHA is such a high-scoring league, but the stats still have him rated very highly.
What else you should know:
I caught a bunch of heat before the tournament started for saying Quinnipiac was a pretty underwhelming No. 1 overall seed (okay, I said they might be the worst one in NCAA tournament history), and it was promptly pointed out to me that they went 12-0 against teams ranked in the top 20 this season, and obviously only improved that mark last weekend in knocking off Union with alarming ease. However, it should also be noted that of their seven losses, four came to sub-.500 teams. Moreover, it has turned in some ugly performances in the last several weeks, including losing 3-2 to Cornell and 4-0 to Brown, as well as needing to stage a comeback just to beat worst-NCAA-team-ever Canisius.
While St. Cloud came into the tournament as a No. 4 seed, it looked very good in doing so, splitting a share of the WCHA's regular-season title with No. 2 overall Minnesota. Splitting the Broadmoor is a no-joking-around thing, and the only reason they were a four-seed at all was because their out-of-conference regular-season record was a dismal 3-5, including suffering sweeps by UNH and Northern Michigan. It likely allayed most of those concerns that it can't win outside the WCHA in pummeling a pair of CCHA teams at regionals, but one could argue one weekend doesn't an antidote make.
Who has the edge:
Both teams come into the Frozen Four not having been all that hot before the NCAA tournament began. Getting shut out by Brown is an ostrich-sized egg on Quinnipiac's face, and St. Cloud was only 3-3 in its previous six. You'd have to think the Q, by virtue of having crushed all top-20 teams in its path this season, is the likely winner in this one. They're old, they're experienced, and they've got a far more solid option in net. If the Bobcats want to prove that their occasional distasteful losses are behind them, now's the time to do it.