PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold isn't certain he has the most talented team in college hockey. He does believe, however, he's got the best.
At the moment, the Bobcats certainly look like it.
Quinnipiac jumped all over St. Cloud State in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday, rolling to a 4-1 victory to set up an all-Connecticut showdown with rival Yale for the championship on Saturday.
Jordan Samuels-Thomas had a goal and an assist for the top-seeded Bobcats while Ben Arnt, Kellen Jones of Montrose, B.C., and Jeremy Langlois also scored for Quinnipiac (30-7-5), who scored three times in the first 12 minutes to take control.
"I felt like I had some good jump in the beginning and a lot of guys won battles," Samuels-Thomas said.
None more than goaltender Eric Hartzell.
The Hobey Baker Award finalist stopped 32 shots for Quinnipiac, easily outshining fellow finalist Drew LeBlanc of St. Cloud State. LeBlanc was held scoreless as the Huskies (25-16-1) struggled to keep up with the more experienced Bobcats. Joey Benik scored his tournament-leading fifth goal for St. Cloud State but it wasn't nearly enough.
Ryan Faragher made 24 saves for the Huskies but was overwhelmed in the first period as Quinnipiac staked the best goaltender in the country to a massive lead.
"I think we'd do anything to replay the first 10 minutes of the hockey game," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. "We dug ourselves a hole. They score three of their first four shots. We hunkered back down but just couldn't overcome it."
The start of the game was pushed by nearly an hour after Yale needed overtime to edge UMass Lowell 3-2. Pecknold had prepared his players for the delay and reminded them to stay sharp.
"We talked as soon as the game went into OT. We talked how we need to jump on St. Cloud," Pecknold said. "We don't know how they're going to handle it, but I thought it was an advantage for us."
The buzz from Yale's victory barely died down when the Bobcats pounced on the Huskies. Samuels-Thomas gave Quinnipiac the lead 1:49 into the game, working behind the net, then beating Faragher on a wraparound.
The Bobcats needed just over three minutes to double the lead. Samuels-Thomas again did most of the work, controlling the puck in the corner then darting behind the St. Cloud State goal. This time, when he tried to stuff it by Faragher, the puck skittered loose. No biggie, the puck rolled right to Arnt's stick and the senior had little trouble flipping it over Faragher's right shoulder for his eighth goal of the season.
"You're coming out to play the biggest game of your life, don't expect to come out flat-footed," LeBlanc said. "They must've handled it better than us, they came out flying, we came out flat and it really decided the game."
Langlois pushed the lead to 3-0 barely halfway through the period, giving Hartzell all the cushion he would need.
"I thought (Hartzell) was the best player on the ice," Pecknold said.
St. Cloud managed to regain its footing after falling into such an early hole and pulled to within 3-1 6:25 into the second period. Hartzell made an uncharacteristic mistake, committing early to a shot from Kevin Gravel and found himself woefully out of position as the puck found its way to Benik's stick at the doorstep. Benik had so much time to score he was able to collect himself before depositing it into the net for his eighth goal of the season.
Quinnipiac's lapse was only momentary. The Bobcats came in 25-0-1 when scoring at least three goals, and though St. Cloud State recovered a bit after the early collapse, it wasn't nearly enough to derail Quinnipiac's run.
The Bobcats restored the three-goal lead on a stellar effort by Jones, who took a pass off the boards and raced into the zone. He turned left and headed for the net, fighting off St. Cloud State's Andrew Prochno and flipping the puck by Faragher's stick.
The loss marked an end to a remarkable season for the Huskies, who started the year as an afterthought before capturing the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season title for the first time since joining the league in 1990.
Victories over Notre Dame and Miami propelled St. Cloud State into its first Frozen Four appearance, but Quinnipiac — and it's talented roster of experienced players — was simply too much.
The Bobcats, sensing a trip to the final in their grasp, clamped down the rest of the way to set up a showdown with the Bulldogs.
Quinnipiac dominated all three meetings with Yale this season, outscoring the Bulldogs 13-3 on its way to the ECAC regular-season title.
The matchup between the Bobcats and the Bulldogs assures the ECAC — which for years has struggled in the shadow of the formidable Hockey East — its first national title since Harvard won it in 1989.
"I think it's phenomenal for our league," Pecknold said. "The ECAC was one of the best if not the best league all year, top to bottom."
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