The only sure thing at this year's Frozen Four, set for the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on April 11 and 13, is that the winner will be a first-time champion.
None of the four participants -- Quinnipiac, Massachusetts-Lowell, St. Cloud State, and Yale -- has ever won it all. Quinnipiac and UMass-Lowell were No. 1 seeds in their respective regionals; St. Cloud and Yale No. 4 seeds in theirs. Only Yale has been to the Frozen Four -- and that was way back in 1952.
Not since 1988 has a team (Lake Superior State) won it all in its first Frozen Four; three teams have the opportunity to rewrite that record in Pittsburgh.
Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta went to four consecutive Frozen Fours at Boston College from 1998-2001. He vividly recalls the first one, in which BC lost the championship game to Michigan, 3-2 in overtime.
"Learn from the older guys and feed off that," Gionta offered as advice for the players on the four teams headed for Pittsburgh.
"But the biggest thing," Gionta reflected, "is the energy in the building. You gotta make sure you bring everything you have because it's a one game takes all."
Gionta and his 2001 Eagles won the title in his last game as a senior, beating North Dakota 3-2 in OT.
One team will win the last game of the 2013 season on April 13.
Here are the brackets with coaches' and NHL.com comments -- and a prediction about the final outcome. All four coaches are 2012-13 AHCA Men's Ice Hockey Spencer Penrose Award Finalists for coach of the year.
Both semifinals will be played on April 11, with the championship game on April 13.
Semifinal Game 1: Yale Bulldogs (ECAC) vs. Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks (Hockey East), 4:30 p.m. ET
How they advanced: In the West Regional, Yale (20-12-3) defeated Minnesota 3-2 in overtime in the semifinal, then beat North Dakota 4-1 in the final. In the Northeast Regional, Lowell (27-6-2) defeated Wisconsin 6-1 in the semifinal, then beat New Hampshire 2-0 in the final.
Yale coach Keith Allain's comments: "We want to be about growth and we try to get better each and every day we come to practice. I thought we hit a bump in the road in Atlantic City [losing both games in the ECAC Tournament by a combined score of 8-0]. I thought we were back on our game [in the regional]. So we see Atlantic City as an aberration. The real dynamic for us are our work ethic and our compete level. You compound that with a team game, which is what we try to play, and it makes us a formidable opponent."
UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin's comments: "We've had a season of firsts here at UMass-Lowell with league and tournament titles. We've continued with our team defensive approach. The guys play very hard for each other with very good leadership; a very selfless approach. And our goaltending has been great of late. We feel every opponent we play is a good team, but you grow tough skin with each one. We've played some good teams, and [playing Hockey East] teams has prepared us well."
NHL.com comments: Lowell's status as the best defensive team in this Frozen Four stems from two factors: the River Hawks allowed just one goal in winning their two regional games, and freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was regional MVP. His overall goals-against average is 1.30. The River Hawks own the NCAA's best record since Christmas at 22-3-1. Senior captain Riley Wetmore drives the internal chemistry; sophomore Scott Wilson makes an impact in big games. This program has come a long way in a hurry -- two years ago, Lowell won only five games.
Yale is peaking at the right time -- beating Minnesota and North Dakota (14 combined national championships) in the regional is really impressive. Junior Kenny Agostino -- part of the package the Calgary Flames received from Pittsburgh in the Jarome Iginla trade -- leads the Bulldogs in scoring and assisted on the OT winner against Minnesota. Senior captain Andrew Miller follows Agostino's 40 points with 37, and Pittsburgh native Jesse Root was regional MVP after notching the overtime goal against Minnesota. This semifinal, however, figures to be a defensive battle in which the winner may not score three goals.
Semifinal Game 2: St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA) vs. Quinnipiac Bobcats (ECAC), 8 p.m. ET
How they advanced: In the Midwest Regional, St. Cloud (25-15-1) beat Notre Dame 5-1 in the semifinal, then topped Miami (Ohio) 4-1 in the final. In the East Regional, Quinnipiac (29-7-5) rallied to beat Canisius 4-3 in the semifinal, then routed Union 5-1 in the final.
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold's comments: "I think I've only probably yelled at this team three times all year. I was aggressive in my tone [in the third period of the Canisius game down 3-1] with: 'Hey, we've got a great opportunity here, and need to take advantage of it.' We had a great third period, and then a great 60 minutes against Union. We are the working definition of a team -- well-rounded and deep. We have four lines, and my four senior defensemen have been awesome back there. I think [goaltender] Eric Hartzell is the best player in college hockey. He's 23 and is NHL-ready. Our leading scorer is 99th in the country, so that shows how good he is. It's been a fun year, and we're all buying in with a great group of guys from a character standpoint."
St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko's comments: "We are very fortunate we recruited some high-end talent, and to get a guy like [Drew] LeBlanc back [after missing all last season to injury] is critical because he is a fifth-year senior. Our freshmen have also gotten a lot of accolades. We put two [Johnny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila] on LeBlanc's line, and by Christmas they were two of the leading goal-scorers in the country. But those numbers point to a player like Drew LeBlanc. Then you start building confidence as others came into their own. Joey [Benik] broke his leg 10 minutes into the first practice [of the season]. We thought about redshirting him -- I'm sure glad we didn't do that. He's got on track scoring goals and has six in the playoffs. We've got a good mix of skilled and talented players. We finished No. 2 in [the WCHA] in goals allowed; our defense and upperclassmen push the offense. That's another real strength."
NHL.com comments: Quinnipiac and Minnesota exchanged the No. 1 ranking for most of the second half of the season.
The Bobcats escaped the early upsets that KO'd regional top seeds Minnesota and Notre Dame in the semifinals by rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to beat Canisius, then thumped Union, led by regional MVP Mathew Peca, who scored a natural hat trick in an NCAA record-setting time of 3:12 of the first period. Hartzell won the player and goalie of the year awards in the ECAC, is a Hobey Baker finalist and has all 29 of Quinnipiac's wins this season.
The Bobcats' biggest challenge may be how to get a quick start against a St. Cloud team that has made a living turning on the red light. The Huskies have scored at least three goals in 27 of their 40 games and scored four or more 20 times. While both teams scored nine times in their regional, St. Cloud's offense led by LeBlanc -- the WCHA Player of the Year, regional MVP, and Hobey Baker finalist -- and freshman Benik will be a handful for the Bobcats.
NHL.com's prediction: Massachusetts-Lowell and St. Cloud State advance to the title game. St. Cloud State wins the Frozen Four and its first national championship.
2013 FROZEN FOUR FACTS:
* The last year in which two ECAC teams appeared in the Frozen Four was 1983 (Providence and Harvard.)
* The last ECAC team to win the national championship was Harvard in 1989; the Crimson beat Minnesota 4-3 in overtime.
* The first team to win a national championship in its first-ever Frozen Four appearance was Cornell in 1967. (From 1948-76, only four teams competed in the NCAA Tournament.)
* The last team to win a national title in its first Frozen Four appearance in the modern era was Lake Superior State in 1988.
* If Yale and St. Cloud State meet for the national championship, it will be a first-ever battle of No. 4 seeds from regional play in the modern era.
* The campuses of Yale and Quinnipiac are located nine miles apart in Connecticut.
* Entering the 2013 NCAA Tournament, the four teams in this Frozen Four owned a combined four wins in NCAA Tournament history -- Yale had three and St. Cloud had one.
* Yale coach Keith Allain, Lowell coach Norm Bazin, and St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko are all alums of their respective schools.
NHL.COM'S CURRENT TOP 10:
1) Quinnipiac (29-7-5)
2) Massachusetts-Lowell (27-10-2)
3) St. Cloud State (25-15-1)
4) Yale (20-12-3)
5) Minnesota (26-9-5)
6) Miami (25-12-5)
7) Notre Dame (25-13-3)
8) Boston College (22-12-4)
9) New Hampshire(20-12-7)
10) Wisconsin (22-13-7)
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