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Pecknold, Quinnipiac go for national title
But why could Saturday night's game (7 p.m., ESPN) be different, in front of 18,000 fans, on national television, and on the game's biggest stage, the championship game of the Frozen Four at the Consol Energy Center?
Well, Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said the Bobcats' rivals are a better team than the last time they met, a 3-0 win in the consolation game of the ECAC Hockey tournament at Atlantic City, N.J., on March 23.
"I guess it's just confidence," said Pecknold, who grew up in Bedford, N.H. "The Atlantic City weekend, they didn't seem to have a lot of confidence and didn't have their best weekend. But they've got some high-end players from what I watched last night. And I have watched the Minnesota and North Dakota games they won, and I thought (winger Kenny) Agostino was great."
Yale (21-12-3) earned its berth in its first national championship game with a 3-2 victory over UMass Lowell on Thursday. Even though the Bulldogs, the No. 4 seed in the West Region, needed an overtime goal from captain Andrew Miller to dispatch the River Hawks, they completely dominated play the entire contest. Yale outshot UMass Lowell 47-18 in perhaps its best game of the season.
"I think they're playing on a different level of hockey right now," Quinnipiac defenseman Zack Currie said. "They've won some impressive games, including last night, but I think our approach doesn't change."
Miller, a senior from Michigan, was all over the ice against the River Hawks. He fired six shots on goal and set up a bevy of other chances in a scintillating performance proving why Yale's top line doesn't have to take a back seat to any in the nation. Miller is tied with Agostino for the team lead with 17 goals.
"Miller does what he does," Pecknold said. "He's really good. And Jesse Root does what he does. That's a great first line. And they're getting some balance from other lines. Then (Jeff) Malcolm's making saves, and I think that is the key. If you can get goaltending, you can win a lot of hockey games. We've dealt with that all year."
Malcolm's presence alone gives Yale a huge boost of confidence. Malcolm (19-6-2, 2.33 GAA) missed the first two contests against the Bobcats due to a leg injury in a difficult five-game stretch in early February. The Bulldogs lost all five games that Malcolm sat after getting slammed into by a Princeton player on Feb. 1.
"What happened in the regular season, in the playoffs it doesn't really matter at this point," Yale's Anthony Laganiere said. "It's just a one and done. It's a whole new time. I also believe that if we can do the little things and stay focused on our task and our game plan and get a lot of pucks low and get to rebounds and get some traffic in front of the goalie, we'll be successful."
The Bobcats (30-7-5) are certainly ready for their part. Quinnipiac cruised to a 4-1 win in its semifinal match with St. Cloud State. Ranked No. 1 for virtually the entire second half of the season after an incredible 21-game unbeaten streak, the Bobcats scored three goals in the first period of Thursday's game and then turned things over to sensational goalie Eric Hartzell, who made 32 saves in another vintage performance.
Hartzell's presence is the biggest X-factor. He is the only goalie in the nation to rack up 30 wins and has allowed fewer than three goals in 26 of his starts. He has started all but one of the Bobcats' games this season, posting a 1.53 GAA.
"He was the best player on the ice (Thursday) night," Pecknold said, "and he's been the best goalie in the country all year."
But when the nation's hockey fans tune into to Connecticut's best hockey teams who will vie for their first national titles, the only thing that matters is which team will be sharper on Saturday night.
"Obviously, Quinnipiac has an excellent hockey team," Yale coach Keith Allain said. "There is a reason they've been the top-ranked team in the country for most of the year, certainly the whole second half of the year. But as has been alluded to earlier, I think the details in our game and our individuals was better now than they were the last time we faced them. So I think we're up to the task."
Said Pecknold: "I don't think anybody needs motivation. Both teams are going to be fired up sky high, and it's all going to be about managing their emotions and controlling and dealing with adversity and trying to minimize the mistakes."