Yale and Quinnipiac just miles, but worlds, apart

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, right, talks to his team during Friday's practice at the Frozen Four hockey championship in Pittsburgh. Quinnipiac plays Yale in the final tonight.
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, right, talks to his team during Friday's practice at the Frozen Four hockey championship in Pittsburgh. Quinnipiac plays Yale in the final tonight. Keith Srakocic/AP photo

Pittsburgh - The home rinks for Quinnipiac and Yale lay less than 10 miles apart.

It might as well be a chasm.

The two schools who will meet for the NCAA hockey championship tonight took very different paths to the brink of history.

Yale is the oldest college hockey program in the country. The Bulldogs hosted their first game in 1896 - more than three decades before Quinnipiac was even founded - and play at 58-year-old Ignalls Rink, dubbed "The Yale Whale." The players answer questions about how they balance academics and athletics at one of the nation's most demanding universities and what their non-hockey future holds.

The questions fielded by the Bobcats are different, ranging from how to pronounce the school's mouthful of a name to if they'd even heard of Quinnipiac before coach Rand Pecknold called offering a chance at finishing the job he started when he took the post 19 years ago. The Bobcats didn't even join Division I until 1998. But they play in sparkling High Point Solutions Arena, a $52-million palace that served as a shot across the bow to the rest of the teams in the ECAC that Quinnipiac is serious about turning into a national power.

Mission accomplished.

The bruising, explosive Bobcats (30-7-5) are the top seed while Yale (21-12-3) is the scrappy underdog searching to fill a trophy case that's largely empty - especially for a team that's been playing since Grover Cleveland was president.

Quinnipiac overwhelmed St. Cloud State early in a 4-1 victory in the semifinals on Thursday while the Bulldogs needed 67 minutes and 47 shots to get past UMass Lowell 3-2 in overtime to advance to its first national title game.

Yet for all their confidence after rolling over Yale in each of the three previous meetings this season by a combined score of 13-3, the Bobcats insist they are taking nothing for granted.

"The Yale team that we're going to face is completely different than the team we played earlier in the year," forward Jordan Thomas-Samuels said. "They're clicking on all cylinders at the right time, from goaltending to defense and offense. So I think our record against them doesn't matter."

Pecknold says his club was "lucky" to beat the Bulldogs 3-0 three weeks ago in the third-place game of the ECAC tournament. Both teams were coming off emotionally draining losses in the league semifinals and with nothing to play for, the hockey wasn't compelling.

"I don't think there was much life for either team," Yale coach Keith Allain said.

How quickly things have changed for two schools that will provide the much-maligned ECAC with its first national title since Harvard won it all in 1989. For years the ECAC has served as hockey's version of the Big East in college football. Sure, there have been good teams, but not great ones.

Not until now.

"We take hits every now and again," Pecknold said. "That's what people want to do, you know. But it's tough to put us down this year. We've got two teams in the national championship game."

And they've even got Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy in on the act. The governor called his state the "center of the college hockey universe" even if Yale and Quinnipiac don't exactly work in the same orbit.

The Bobcats are built around goaltender Eric Hartzell - a Hobey Baker Award Finalist - and a defensive core of upper classmen that can put up a sometimes impenetrable wall. They pushed around St. Cloud State for long stretches in the semifinals, scoring three goals in the game's first 12 minutes then clamping down on one of the most explosive teams in the country.

Yale is a counterpuncher. The Bulldogs swarmed Lowell, tilting the ice with their deft passing and aggression. Senior forward Andrew Miller netted the game-winner 6:59 into overtime with a dazzling move around two Lowell defenders before slipping the puck between the legs of River Hawks goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.

• Forward Drew LeBlanc of St. Cloud State has won the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation's top college hockey player.

LeBlanc, who helped to lead the Huskies to an appearance in the Frozen Four, becomes the first member of the St. Cloud State program to ever win the coveted award, which was handed out Friday night.

LeBlanc, a fifth-year senior center, led the nation with 37 assists in 42 games.

He scored 13 goals, and finished with 50 points, good for seventh in the nation.

He was a two-year captain for the Huskies, who lost to Quinnipiac, 4-1, Thursday in the national semifinals here.

He is a native of Hermantown, Minn., and was named first team all-conference in the WCHA this season.

Also Friday, the Chicago Blackhawks agreed to terms with LeBlanc on a one-year contract.

Hobey Baker was a legendary player at Princeton, and is remembered for redefining the game with end-to-end rushes and no-look passes.

"Well, I think just to be associated with the name Hobey Baker and what he meant to not only college hockey, but the time period in general, how big of a figure he was, just to be associated with that has been pretty special for me," LeBlanc said. "I've said it a bunch of times now, but it doesn't happen if our team doesn't have the success that we've had this year.

"I've been fortunate enough to play with a great group of guys and with great people and great leaders. It's just everything kind of aligned right and found a place for me, and I'm just fortunate to have the opportunity."

Quinnipiac goaltender Eric Hartzell was also a Hobey Baker finalist, was a key cog in the Bobcats' run to the title game. Hartzell outshined LeBlanc Thursday night, and Quinnipiac will try to win its first national championship on Saturday at the Consol Energy Center vs. Yale.

But goalies rarely win the award. In fact, the last one to win the Baker was Ryan Miller in 2001. Miller was a standout for Michigan State before graduating to an impressive career with the Buffalo Sabres. He also helped lead Team USA to a silver medal in the Vancouver Olympics.

The previous three Baker winners were also forwards: Wisconsin's Blake Geoffrion (2010); Miami, Ohio's Andy Miele (2011); and Minnesota Duluth's Jack Connolly (2012).

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