Quinnipiac vs. St. Cloud State: Don't call these programs flukes

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With a field noticeably lacking college hockey's powerhouse programs, the overarching story surrounding the 2013 Frozen Four has been a rather predictable one -- of the historical underdogs finally getting their chance to rise up and capture the sport's ultimate prize.

The presence of St. Cloud State among the four teams speaks to that surprise factor, but it is perhaps best epitomized by Quinnipiac.

The fact that the Bobcats made it to Pittsburgh might raise some eyebrows, but they entered the tournament as the top overall seed and for much of the regular season, they were seen as the best team in college hockey.

In short, they're a surprise that lacks the resume of a traditional upstart.

While both programs are in their first Frozen Four, with Quinnipiac making just its second NCAA tournament appearance, these are proud schools that don't view themselves as ciphers, even if others may.

"These aren't flukes -- this is the real thing," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. "Hockey is in a great growth spurt right now. I know people are talking that the named schools didn't make it this year, but I think the right schools made it this year."

Quinnipiac has been the No. 1 team in the USCHO poll for six of the past seven weeks. At one point, the Bobcats were riding a 21-game unbeaten streak that transformed them from a plucky newcomer to a prohibitive favorite.

At the center of the program's ascent has been goaltender Eric Hartzell, a finalist for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, which honors the top player in college hockey. He has been an integral part of a stingy defense that gives up the fewest goals per game (1.63) among the 59 Division I teams.

Playing on a team without a single elite offensive player, Hartzell's contributions have been invaluable, leading Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold to anoint him as "the best player in college hockey."

"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," Pecknold said. "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."

As something of a testament to the quality of teams remaining, the game features one of the other two remaining Hobey Baker finalists in St. Cloud State forward Drew LeBlanc. After a broken leg a year ago, LeBlanc was seventh among Division I players in points (50) and the leader in assists (37) this season.

He has been part of a Huskies team that is second in Division I with 3.41 goals per game and that has six players that have recorded at least 30 points, something which should present a nice contrast to Quinnipiac's renowned defensive prowess.

But regardless of how they got here, both teams say that there is still more to accomplish.

Much like Louisville has done in college basketball by not cutting down the nets after its wins, many of the Bobcats players didn't celebrate after they won their regional final against Union.

Though their historical lack of success may indicate otherwise, players from both teams see championship potential, something they hope to prove this week.

"We realize that it's a huge accomplishment to get to the Frozen Four, and we're ecstatic about reaching that," Quinnipiac defenseman Zack Currie said. "But we're going for the national championship. And it's another huge win for our program, a huge win for us. But I think part of it was just that we know we're not done."

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @craig_a_meyer


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