Hartzell, run of success help Quinnipiac make a name for itself going into Frozen Four

Following the regional finals, that corner of the Internet inhabited by college hockey nuts exploded with zingers and one-liners taking aim at the obscure and esoteric nature of the final foursome. To paraphrase a few memorable lines:

“Potential Frozen Four slogan — ‘Pittsburgh 2013: Who?'”

“Way to stick it to ESPN, Frozen Four!”

2013 NCAA Frozen Four

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Suffice it to say that when the most recognizable program on the docket is Yale, it’s a pretty quirky quartet. Perhaps nobody represents the final baffling bracket better than Quinnipiac.

Lowell may not come up on the Family Feud list of Massachusetts metropolises, and St. Cloud State might leave outsiders scratching their heads as to which state “State” is from. But at least those are state schools. Where, or what, is a Quinnipiac — and how did it end up as the top seed in this tumultuous tournament?

Let’s answer those questions with a primer. Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pea-ack) is in Hamden, Conn., and has 6,200 undergraduates and 2,300 grad students. Founded down the road in New Haven in 1929, the school supported an NCAA hockey team for the first time in the winter of 1975.

Playing in Division II until 1999-2000, the Quinnipiac Braves jumped to the MAAC and Division I for the new millennium. They ditched their controversial moniker in favor of the Bobcats in 2002-03, moved to Atlantic Hockey when the MAAC transitioned one year later, and finally found ECAC Hockey in 2005-06.

Rand Pecknold is the Bobcats’ 19-year head coach. Yale (less than eight miles down Whitney Avenue) is the rival. Blue and gold are the colors. And success — 17 years since a losing season, zero since moving to Division I — is the defining characteristic of Pecknold’s program.

“I think for us we’ve been successful for three reasons,” Pecknold said. “One is we’ve always had great assistant coaches, and I’ve been really fortunate to hire well over the years, and those great assistants have gone out and done a great job recruiting. And No. 2 is getting great players. And the third thing is the resources that Quinnipiac University provides us with.

“We built one of the best rinks in the country [High Point Solutions Arena at the TD Bank Sports Center, which] opened in ’07. That helped in recruiting. President [John] Lahey and [Athletic Director] Jack McDonald and [Executive Vice President] Mark Thompson give us everything we need for us to be successful.”

The Bobcats rose to the top spot in the PairWise Rankings on the wings of a 21-game unbeaten streak (18-0-3) that stretched from Nov. 9 to Feb. 15. (They may have lost four times since then, but their record is still an impressive 8-4-1 over that span.)

While recently known as a dangerous transition team with a stable of high-caliber snipers, this year’s Bobcats have achieved on depth, defense, and a Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalist in senior goaltender Eric Hartzell.

“I think Eric Hartzell is the best player in college hockey,” Pecknold said. “Dominant all year. Certainly, there’s a lot of great players: Drew LeBlanc at St. Cloud, [Austin] Czarnik at Miami, and on and on. There’s a lot of great players. But I just think from a standpoint of what Hartzell does for us, my leading scorer is 99th in the country in scoring, and yet we’re ranked No. 1 in the country.

“So what Hartzy has done for us is carried us on his back all year long. He’s been great. Whenever we’ve struggled, he’s been there to bail us out, even that 21-gam unbeaten streak. We probably had I would say five games we should have lost in that span that he won for us.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins reportedly have made strong advances toward the to-be unrestricted free agent, even sending top executives to Hamden to court the captivating keeper. Now they’ll get to show him around their own barn.

Beyond the goalie, though, there are some true talents on Pecknold’s roster. Sophomore and Tampa Bay prospect Matthew Peca has scored 15 goals and a team-leading 30 points. Senior Jeremy Langlois has 30 points as well, and a dozen goals. Winnipeg draft pick Jordan Samuels-Thomas leads the squad with 16 goals in his senior season, and twin juniors Kellen and Connor Jones each boast a dozen goals as well.

These Bobcats aren’t a stage show; they’re a three-ring circus.

“We’re a good definition of team,” Pecknold said. “We’re well-rounded. We’re deep. Like I just said, we barely have a scorer in the top 100 in the country, but we have four lines, and they all contribute. Kevin Bui has contributed with some big goals here in the playoff run. Russ Goodman had a big one in the Canisius game to tie it up.

“We’ve been [succeeding] by committee all year, and certainly you can’t go past my four senior defensemen, [Zack] Currie and Loren Barron and Zach Davies and Mike Dalhuisen, they’ve been awesome back there. They’ve been really good along with [Danny] Federico and [Zach] Tolkinen. So it’s been a fun year: Eleven seniors, all playing well. They’re all buying in. It’s a great group of guys from a character standpoint.

“And I think you saw that resiliency in the Canisius win. We had that great first period and really struggled in the second and came out and were dominant in the third and found a way to get it done.”

You may not know them. You may not think much of their team, their institution, their league, or their regional bracket. You may not even be able to pronounce their school.

But the Quinnipiac Bobcats have earned their spot in the Frozen Four, along with the other three “who?” teams in Pittsburgh this week. They’ve done what it takes to get here, and there is no reason to expect them to fade away now.