At this year's Frozen Four, one school will win the first national championship in its history.
Of the four teams still standing in college hockey's postseason, three (UMass-Lowell, Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State) are making their first appearance in the Frozen Four, while upstart Yale has also never won a national championship.
The storylines don't end there. Yale snuck into the tournament as a bubble team, while UMass-Lowell, Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State may not represent traditional hockey powers, but all won their respective leagues this season.
Let's break down this year's Frozen Four and offer up picks and a few predictions about how the tournament will play out.
UMass-Lowell over Yale
This one comes down to one basic tenet of hockey—a hot goaltender is all you need to win it all. And Connor Hellebuyck is one hot goaltender for UMass-Lowell.
Consider the following, from Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
It wasn't always easy. In Hellebuyck's second career start, he gave up five goals in a 5-1 loss Oct. 19 to Denver. Since then, though, he has given up more than two goals only twice in 21 games.
"We've got a great coaching staff here and they've really been helping me along the way," Hellebuyck said. "I guess it was just a belief that the process would take care of itself."
Hellebuyck leads Division I in goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.953) and shutouts (6).
Yale is not to be underestimated, of course. The team has back-to-back wins against Minnesota and North Dakota and has a lot of firepower in Kenny Agostino, Ivy League Player of the Year Andrew Miller, Antoine Laganiere and Jesse Root.
Yale snuck into this tournament and has played giant-killers ever since. But it's hard to kill a giant that has a red-hot goalie, and that's exactly what UMass-Lowell has in Hellebuyck.
UMass-Lowell wins, 2-1.
Quinnipiac over St. Cloud State
Non-hockey fans might think St. Cloud State is the title of the next Wilco album, but in fact it is an extremely talented squad rife with youngsters like Jonny Brodzinski, Kalle Kossila, and Joey Benik that have saved some of their best hockey for the postseason.
Drew LeBlanc and Nic Dowd round out a talented roster for St. Cloud that could just indie rock their way into the final.
But I like the experience of Quinnipiac—along with goalie Eric Hartzell, an Hobey Baker Award finalist—to win the day. Quinnipiac comes in as the top seed and I'm always hesitant to bet against the team with more experience and a better goaltender.
Quinnipiac wins, 3-1.
Quinnipiac over UMass-Lowell
I like Quinnipiac to defeat UMass-Lowell in the final. With more overall talent and an equally capable goalie, Quinnipiac just has the look of a champion.
With talented players like Matthew Peca, senior captain Zack Currie, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Connor and Kellen Jones and Hartzell, the Bobcats won't be denied.
Quinnipiac wins, 2-0.
Hartzell will be named Most Outstanding Player.
Unfortunately, the ratings will probably be down for this tournament, with the absence of any traditional powers. Still, having upstarts like Yale and St. Cloud State in the Frozen Four is excellent for the sport—everyone loves an underdog (or two), after all.
Don't let my prediction of a 3-1 win for Quinnipiac over St. Cloud State fool you—I think it will be the game of the tournament, and only a late empty-net goal will give the illusion of a comfortable Quinnipiac win. This one will go down to the wire.
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