PITTSBURGH — Here’s some of what St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko and players Ben Hanowski, Nick Jensen and Drew LeBlanc had to say after their practice Wednesday:
PITTSBURGH — Ryan Faragher ranks third among the starting goaltenders at the Frozen Four in goals against average, fourth in save percentage and fourth in winning percentage.
In Thursday’s national semifinals, the St. Cloud State sophomore will look to the other end of the ice and see a Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalist in Quinnipiac’s Eric Hartzell.
Goaltending is a priority in the NCAA tournament, and Faragher might be flying under the radar a bit entering the Frozen Four.
Not to Huskies players, though.
“We feel he is one of the best in the country, too,” said Huskies captain Drew LeBlanc, himself a Hobey Hat Trick finalist. “He’s won in big games and played on big stages before and performed well. He thrives under these moments.”
Faragher allowed one goal in each game of the Midwest Regional, knocking off Notre Dame and Miami. In the WCHA Final Five before that, however, he allowed three goals on 20 shots in a loss to Wisconsin.
St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko tells about Faragher’s first WCHA start, which came after the team lost starter Mike Lee to injury last season. Then a freshman, Faragher blanked North Dakota on the road to make quite the introduction.
“He’s our guy. We go to battle with this guy,” Motzko said. “We’ve watched him get better and improve in so many areas. When he’s had a couple of these challenges as a goaltender to get better, he’s handled them. I know all of us have complete confidence in him that he’s going to be prepared to go.”
PITTSBURGH — It hasn’t really mattered what lineup combinations Quinnipiac has used this season. The Bobcats have done one thing all season: win.
That’s why the lack of points by the trio of Matthew Peca, Connor Jones and Kellen Jones earlier in the year wasn’t that much of a concern, although coach Rand Pecknold said he did break them up in an attempt to get each player going.
“They were getting a lot of good looks,” Pecknold said. “Their points weren’t were they needed to be. And then we had a couple of injuries. We took Matthew off the line for a little while and kept winning. And then we put Matthew back on the line and we kept winning.”
Peca and Connor Jones each missed several games in the fall due to injuries. Freshman Travis St. Denis took Peca’s place on the top line for a stretch following the holidays, with Peca sliding down to play with Jeremy Langlois on the second line.
“I had the opportunity to play with Jeremy, so it didn’t really bother me that we weren’t together,” Peca said. “But as of late, it’s good to be back to our old ways.”
Those old ways include plenty of points. The trio factored in six of the Bobcats’ nine goals in the East Regional in Providence, R.I., including Peca’s natural hat trick in a span of 3:12 against Union that helped send Quinnipiac to Pittsburgh.
But it’s more than just scoring that defines the Bobcats’ top line. Pecknold praised the trio’s defensive play and shot blocking following the win against the Dutchmen.
“Even with the offense they provide, they set the pace for us and that’s how we want to play,” Pecknold said following Wednesday’s practice. “That line is a great energy line for us.
“I think ultimately when we’re at our best is when those three are playing together.”
PITTSBURGH — Here’s more of what Massachusetts-Lowell players were saying Wednesday, the eve of their Frozen Four semifinal against Yale:
“You get get there pretty quick. We were a little early for our flight.” — Chad Ruhwedel on one benefit to getting a police escort to the airport.
“It’s one hell of a rink.” — Joe Pendenza on the Consol Energy Center.
“He’s kind of boring to watch at times because he’s always in the right position and he is such a good goaltender.” — Riley Wetmore on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck’s success.
“One of the underlying themes of our team is team defense and blocking shots. A lot of people don’t look at that, but that’s why Connor has been doing so well. It’s a team game, and he’ll tell you that as well.” — Wetmore on Lowell’s team defense.
“It’s been our mind-set all year to focus on us and not any other team. Any team that makes it this far is doing something right.” — Wetmore on how Yale compares to teams Lowell has faced this year.
“We watched some video on different aspects of their forecheck and their special teams. It really comes down to how we prepare and coming out and playing Lowell-style hockey.” — Ruhwedel on Yale.
PITTSBURGH — Quinnipiac took its turn in the media room Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, and here are a few clips:
PITTSBURGH — The road to the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup can be a grueling one — as the chase for the regular season title is in any league — and it has been known to take a toll on teams in the postseason.
Not so for St. Cloud State this season, coach Bob Motzko said.
St. Cloud State finished the regular season with splits in the final four series, which was enough for a share of the league hardware and the top spot in the WCHA playoffs.
After a sweep of last-place Alaska-Anchorage in the first round, the Huskies bowed out of the Final Five with a 4-1 loss to Wisconsin in the semifinals.
Motzko doesn’t think his team lost any momentum down the stretch, but he did think they were a nervous bunch.
“We’d never been in that position before,” he said Wednesday, the day before the Huskies play Quinnipiac in the Frozen Four semifinals. “We ended up winning and were able to battle through and … win the MacNaughton Cup, and I think it made us a better hockey team.”
Nerves and the Frozen Four go hand in hand for many teams, but St. Cloud State might have it out of its system.
“When we got into the NCAA tournament, I kind of sense they relaxed and the nervousness had left them,” Motzko said. “I think that was the biggest key going through the region. We had been through our nervousness, because every week that last three or four weeks to win the MacNaughton was stressful on our team because we had never been there before.”
Massachusetts-Lowell players and coaches enjoyed a police escort to Logan International Airport. When the plane landed in Pittsburgh, they were greeted by cheerleaders and a pep band, courtesy of host school Robert Morris. Banners all about the city proclaimed a welcome to the Frozen Four.
“[The police escort] was pretty cool,” Chad Ruhwedel said. “I’d never experienced that before. You get get there pretty quick.”
“We were kind of in awe,” Riley Wetmore said of the cheerleader-and-pep-band greeting. “We don’t really expect that ever. It was something different and it was neat.”
Getting treated like a rock star is an experience these young men are likely never to forget.
But they’ll need some temporary amnesia in Thursday’s game against Yale and maybe, just maybe, a Saturday night match for the national championship.
“We have a wow factor for the first day,” Wetmore said. “We want everyone to enjoy the experience. For the guys in the locker room, this is once-in-a-lifetime [experience]. Being a senior, this is the only time I’m going to be able to experience it.
“So, yeah, we took it in. We had a good practice. But tonight and tomorrow, it’s going to be [our usual game-day] mentality. We’ve got to be focused and ready to go.”
Lowell coach Norm Bazin pointed to Wetmore’s leadership as a critical component in the River Hawks enjoying the experience but avoiding the distractions. Wetmore is the only two-time captain in the history of the program who has led his team to the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve approached these last three weekends the same way,” Bazin said. “Riley Wetmore has been a great two-time captain for us.
“When you have good leadership, you can get over some of those distractions. We’ve done a fairly good job, I believe, as a coaching staff, of trying to eliminate a lot of those distractions over the course of the week, introducing some of the things that they may see here.
“Once tomorrow comes, it will be business as usual.”
More thoughts from the Yale camp on Wednesday:
“Every time we don’t get to compete for a national championship is a disappointment in our eyes.” — Senior forward Andrew Miller, the 2012-13 Ivy League player of the year.
“I personally don’t see us as underdogs.” — Senior defenseman Colin Dueck, who’s played 121 games for the Bulldogs.
“I think it is a level playing field.” — Junior forward Jesse Root, who had the game-winning goal in each of Yale’s contests in the West Regional.
“We’ve been anxious over the last two weeks to get here. It didn’t go by fast enough.” — Sophomore forward Anthony Day, who had two of his four assists of this season in Yale’s 4-1 win over North Dakota in the West Regional.
“We focused on hockey and we had two great weeks of practice to prepare and get better to be in the best position for these games.” — Senior forward Josh Balch, whose third goal of the season was the tying goal in Yale’s 4-1 win over North Dakota.
“On campus, it’s been great.” — Root.
“The students have been great, and faculty and even some of the professors. Maybe not all of them.” — Dueck.
“The response has been tremendous. One of the nice things about the work we do and the effort we put in is that we can bring pleasure to so many people who are connected with Yale and the Yale hockey program.” — Coach Keith Allain, who played for Yale (1976-80).
“If you want to look around in warmups a little bit, that’s great, but we have a hockey game to play.” — Sophomore forward Kenny Agostino, who leads the Bulldogs with 17 goals and 23 assists.
PITTSBURGH — The ultimate compliment to any player is when his coach moves to a new program and brings the player along with him. Even more so if that involves making the huge leap from Division III hockey to Division I.
Massachusetts-Lowell coach Norm Bazin held defenseman Joe Houk in just such a high regard. Houk played his first two years of collegiate hockey for Bazin at Hamilton, a Division III program in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.
As a sophomore, Houk played like a man among boys on the blue line, scoring 17 goals and adding 16 assists in just 25 games. He became the first sophomore to earn the league’s player of the year award and also earned Division III first-team All-American honors.
Hamilton, historically a NESCAC also-ran and one that had finished tied for last place three years earlier, took the NESCAC regular season crown.
When Bazin accepted the offer to return to Lowell, his alma mater, the superstar coach took along his superstar player.
Houk redshirted last season due to the transfer rules, and experienced early growing pains adjusting to D-I play, accumulating a minus-6 statistic over the first seven games.
Since then, however, he has recorded only a single negative game in plus-minus (minus-1 on Jan. 12) and has rallied to become tied as the River Hawks top plus-minus performer at plus-17. While he has yet to score his first goal, he’s assisted on 11.
“Joe is an excellent offensive threat,” Bazin said at Wednesday’s news conference. “You haven’t seen that too much at the Division I level yet, but he’s maturing into that.
“He’s had to learn to deal with bigger, stronger, faster players this year, and it’s taken him a while to defend. He’s still working on his offensive game and perfecting his defensive game a little bit more as the season progressed. But I think in time he’ll grow into more of an offensive threat.”
In his first collegiate game at Hamilton, Houk played before a typical D-III “crowd” of 604. This weekend, he’ll play for a D-I national championship in an NHL rink in front of an expected 19,758 fans. There’s also that potential Saturday night ESPN audience.
Suffice it to say that he’s made one gigantic leap.
PITTSBURGH — With both Quinnipiac and Yale representing the state of Connecticut and ECAC Hockey, it may be easy to overlook the other league that claims the Bulldogs for its own.
Harvard was the last Ivy League school to capture the NCAA championship, back in 1989. Cornell won the title in 1967 and again in 1970. It’s a point that isn’t lost on Yale sophomore defenseman Tommy Fallen.
“It’s incredible,” Fallen said after the Bulldogs practiced Wednesday morning. “An Ivy League team that can compete for a national championship is very rare. We just want to come out here and prove that we can compete for championships and play against these big teams.”
Yale’s only previous trip to the Frozen Four was in 1952, when the Bulldogs lost a semifinal game to Colorado College before beating St. Lawrence in the third-place game. The Bulldogs have played their way to the NCAA tournament in four of the last five years, though, missing the tourney at the end of the 2011-12 season.
“We got really close my first two years,” senior forward Josh Balch said. “We lost in the elite eight and I remember both those days like they were yesterday. It was a really disappointing time. Just to finally get here, it’s a relief. It’s really emotional. Now that we’re here, I want to make the most of it.”
Making the most of the experience is a theme that runs through the Yale locker room. “The main thing is just to enjoy it,” said freshman forward Stu Wilson, son of RIT coach Wayne Wilson. The senior Wilson captained the Bowling Green hockey team that won the national championship in 1984.
“I think the guys on the team, some of the older guys, have told me that,” Stu Wilson said. “Also, my dad from when they went to the Frozen Four told me just to enjoy every moment. As a freshman, you feel a bit spoiled to be going your first year.”
Said sophomore forward Trent Ruffalo, “I think we’re all just trying to soak it in right now, but at the same time, we have a job to do.”