Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell and St. Cloud State forward Drew LeBlanc head into this weekend's Frozen Four with hopes of coming away with an NCAA championship trophy. But there's a chance one of them could leave with another significant piece of hardware.
Those two seniors, along with Boston College sophomore forward Johnny Gaudreau, are the three finalists for this year's Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey's most outstanding player.
The award, commonly referred to as the college hockey equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, will be presented at 6 p.m. Friday at Consol Energy Center. The ceremony is free and open to the public.
Either Hartzell or LeBlanc, whose teams face off in Thursday's semifinals, will prepare for the championship Saturday night. Both have played a significant role in getting their respective squads to their first Frozen Four.
Hartzell was the anchor for a Quinnipiac team that relied on its defense all season. The Bobcats lead Division I in team defense, allowing just 1.63 goals per game.
"I think Eric Hartzell is the best player in college hockey," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. "Dominant all year.
"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 [Hartzell] 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."
LeBlanc, who will try to score on Hartzell Thursday night, made an emotional comeback this season after breaking his leg in St. Cloud State's 11th game last season. Serving as the Huskies captain this year, he leads Division I in assists with 37 and ranks seventh in total points with 50.
"I think he had the feeling that he had unfinished business and he wanted to come back and do it the right way," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. "He was coming back for more team reasons and more reasons that because he lost it that there was a heart pull for him to come back."
In addition to his skills on the ice, LeBlanc spends his mornings as a student-teacher at St. Cloud Apollo High School as part of his math education major.
"He's an absolute workhorse," Huskies junior forward Cory Thorson said. "He goes the extra mile in any way, and it definitely rubs off on the other 24 guys in the locker room."
Gaudreau is the only finalist who will not play in this weekend's games. Boston College won last year's NCAA title but was eliminated by Union in the first round of this year's tournament.
Gaudreau, who has inspired T-shirt slogans such as "Johnny Hockey" and "Gaudreaubey Baker" on Boston College's campus, said he would prefer to be here with the rest of his team, but is looking forward to the experience nonetheless.
"It's going to be difficult to come to Pittsburgh knowing that I'm just here by myself," Gaudreau said. "I'm not here with my teammates and the guys I've been playing with all year. [They've] helped me to get to Pittsburgh. I'm excited to go there, obviously, but from last year to this year, it's a complete opposite change for me."frozenfour
Sam Werner: email@example.com or on Twitter @SWernerPG