NCAA Frozen Four: Who will sit upon the Nation’s Throne?

For only the second time since 1993, the throne of college hockey will seat a new king.

Yale, UMass-Lowell, St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac form the Frozen Four and each eye college hockey’s “iron chair.” None of these squads has ever won a national championship and besides Yale this marks their first Frozen Four appearances. Yale’s only berth in the final foursome came back in 1952 where they finished in third-place.

Back in 1952 the NCAA ice hockey championships were relatively new with its origin dating back to 1948. From the tournament’s inception through the 1957 championship the event was held in the Broadmoor World Arena located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The first year the tournament moved coincidentally was 1958, the last time the Frozen Four was made up of four teams searching for their first national championship.

In ’58, the University of Denver and the University of North Dakota met in their first title games and first Frozen Four appearances. Denver was victorious, giving the program the first of seven titles. That tournament was played at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, which housed the Golden Gophers until 1993.

This year the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh will hold the NCAA championships for the first time. Whether it’s the Bulldogs, the River Hawks, the Huskies or the Bobcats, one team will join the halls of hockey heroism and become the 19th squad to win its first title. Minnesota-Duluth became the 18th member of the club back in 2011.

Legends rise to the rafters and regular players become immortals with unforgettable performances in the Frozen Four. Sometimes those stars don’t come as advertised, lacking a signing bonus in their back pockets and the buzz surrounding their prospect status. Two years ago, the hero for the Bulldogs was senior Kyle Schmidt. The role-player scored 26 goals in 125 career NCAA games, but none was bigger than his overtime game-winner against perennial powerhouse Michigan, giving Minnesota-Duluth its first taste of ultimate victory.

That got me thinking about possible darlings of this year’s dance who may be flying under the nation’s radar. I picked a player from each Frozen Four squad who may have their names stored in the lore of college hockey.

Jeff Malcolm – Yale Bulldogs

Senior – Goalie

Image courtesy of ncaa.com

Gutty. That’s the best way I can describe this Bulldog. Malcolm certainly fits the mold of NCAA tournament performers who were unheralded before a dominant postseason performance. After two seasons with the Quesnel Millionaires of the BCHL, Malcolm came to the U.S. in search of playing college hockey while earning a solid education. The senior from Lethbridge, Alberta struggled to get a firm grasp on the number one gig early at Yale.

Now 23, Malcolm may seem too old for some teams to take a chance on. But if you look at his trends he has enhanced his play with more starts beginning in his junior campaign. In 25 starts last season, the 6-foot-2 netminder finished with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage. This year his numbers bettered his previous bests, finishing with a 2.35 GAA and a .916 SV % in 28 starts.

Malcolm may not have superb technique, but he is a gamer and has displayed the ability to steal a game. He looked outstanding early in the NCAA tournament, especially in a 3-2 overtime victory over number one seed Minnesota. If Yale continues this Cinderella run Malcolm will be trying on the glass slipper come April 13.

 

Christian Folin – UMass-Lowell River Hawks

Freshman – Defense

Image courtesy of UML

UMass-Lowell entered the tournament on fire after winning its first Hockey East title, and now has its sights set on its first NCAA title. The River Hawks were my tournament favorite going in and have made me more confident through the first two games. Freshman netminder Connor Hellebuyck (WPG 130th overall ‘12) has been sensational allowing just one goal in 120 minutes of tournament hockey. His shutout streak was ended at 159:20 when Wisconsin scored its only goal of a 6-1 drubbing. Hellebuyck has that streak in his rearview and eyes a new one after blanking the University of New Hampshire, clinching the River Hawks’ first Frozen Four berth.

Although Hellebuyck has drawn most of the attention, his defensive core has been equally as good, using their big bodies to block shots and clear the slot. One defenseman in particular caught my eye in the tournament opener. Christina Folin may be listed as a freshman, but he is actually 22 years old. The 6-foot-4 and 215 pound Swedish defenseman played with Frolunda’s Under-18 and Under-20 squads until 2010 when he came to the states. Folin began his North American career with the Fargo Force of the USHL and finished the season with the Austin Bruins of the NAHL. After one more productive season with Austin, in which Folin tallied 31 points, UMass-Lowell came knocking.

Swedish defensemen are known for their defensive zone coverage first and offensive skills second. Folin fits the same mold, earning his ice time because of his stout defense and strong body control. There are flashes of skill and flair in his game, as was put on display against Wisconsin when he recognized an odd-man rush and utilized it, depositing the pass into the back of the net. Once UMass-Lowell’s season is over, those who missed out on the Andrej Sustr and Dan DeKeyser sweepstakes will be hot on Folin.

 

Drew LeBlanc – St. Cloud State Huskies

Senior – Forward

Image courtesy of wcha.com

Entering the first day of the tournament the most talked about Huskie was not Drew LeBlanc. Despite the fact that LeBlanc is the team’s leading scorer and WCHA player of the year, the news of teammate Ben Hanowski’s involvement in the Jarome Iginla trade dominated the headlines. Perhaps it was fitting that the best setup man in college hockey dished out more attention than he “drew” in.

LeBlanc may not have recorded a point yet in the tournament, but still remains a favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player. Despite just 13 goals this year, Leblanc earns his merits by dishing assists – 37 of them – giving him 50 points in 41 games. The point totals aren’t quite indicative of the player, and better yet person LeBlanc is. The four-time WCHA All-Academic Team selection is as much of a leader off the ice and in the classroom than he is on it. A true team player from Hermantown, MN, LeBlanc epitomizes what is means to be a student-athlete.

If it weren’t for an injury that cut last season short after just 10 games, LeBlanc would have been one of the most sought-after unrestricted free agents. With the season the forward is currently having much of the league will be watching him in the Frozen Four.

 

Eric Hartzell – Quinnipiac Bobcats

Senior – Goalie

Image courtesy of Quinnipiac Athletics

I recently wrote about Hartzell being one of four intriguing NCAA players who will become unrestricted free agents once their seasons end. The Quinnipiac Bobcats are still playing thanks primarily to the goaltending of Hartzell. The senior netminder is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award after a phenomenal senior campaign. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hartzell won the award and if I had a vote his name would be on my ballet.

After a slight scare against Canisius, the Bobcats devoured Union 5-1, punching their ticket to Pittsburgh. The Minnesota native saved 18 shots and received a lighter load than usual courtesy of Matthew Peca’s hat trick. If Quinnipiac has a chance to win it all Hartzell has to continue his stellar play and possibly steal a game. A semifinal matchup highlighting Hartzell against St. Cloud State’s Hobey Baker Finalist and leading scorer Drew LeBlanc will be a dandy to watch.