With nine goals each through two games, the Quinnipiac Bobcats and St. Cloud State Huskies entered their semifinal matchup as the top-scoring teams in the NCAA Tournament. But it was Quinnipiac that started scoring 1:49 into the contest, built a commanding, 3-0 lead by the 11:19 mark, then shifted into shutdown defense to roll to the National Championship Game with a 4-1 win.
“I think we’d do anything to replace the first 10 minutes of the hockey game,” said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. “They scored on three of the first four shots. We hunkered back down, but we just couldn’t overcome it.”
“I don’t know if they just came out buzzing and we came out flatfooted or what,” said St. Cloud State senior forward Drew LeBlanc, who the following day would be named the 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner. “If we come out different, it’s a different game.”
Not only did the Bobcats find a way to keep LeBlanc – who came into the game with 50 points on the season – off the scoresheet, they got their own star performance from Jordan Samuels-Thomas, the 6-foot-4 Winnipeg Jets prospect who set the tone by scoring the first goal, setting up the second, and being a dominant presence throughout the game.
“He was going against one of the best defensemen in the country,” Motzko said. “He makes a great power play and power move down low on both plays. When you bury yourself [early], it’s going to be difficult to get back. I really attribute it to that young fellow that made those two plays.”
“I thought Jordan was awesome tonight. He was moving his feet; he was competing. He was big and strong, and he was dominant even outside of the goals and stuff,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. “He had a couple of [great] shifts, and it gets our bench going. It will energize the next couple of lines, and it’s fun to watch.”
Pecknold also praised the play of sophomore forward Matthew Peca and senior forward Jeremy Langlois, who scored his 100th career point with the Bobcats’ third goal. “I think we’ve got seven or eight kids on our team that have a real chance to play in the NHL one day.”
But the best player on the ice might have been Eric Hartzell, the Quinnipiac goaltender who stopped 33 of 34 shots and helped keep St. Cloud State 0-for-5 on the power play, particularly on opportunities that could have gotten the Huskies right back in the game when the score was 2-0 and 3-1.
“At 2-0, I think we had a number of quality chances,” Motzko said. “Hartzell was great. He stood tall to the task.”
“He was outstanding,” said St. Cloud State senior forward Ben Hanowski. “He showed why he’s up for the Hobey. We didn’t do a great job of capitalizing on our chances early. He got into a good groove, and he was in it all night.”
Saturday, Quinnipiac moves on to face crosstown rival Yale in an all-Connecticut, all-ECAC National Championship Game. The Bobcats have faced – and beaten – the Bulldogs three times this season but, with so much on the line, they’re not worried about getting overconfident.
“It’s hard to beat any team in the regular season twice, and it’s crazy that we’ll meet them for the fourth time,” said Bobcats senior defenseman Loren Barron. “It’s hard to go in and be overconfident when you know you have a big matchup. They know us as well as we know them.”
“We’ll spend a little time on what we need to do to be effective against Yale but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Pecknold said. “We could play the Montreal Canadiens and we’re going to play the same way. We’re really good at our game, and we need to stay the course.”
For St. Cloud State, meanwhile – outside of the first 11 minutes of the semifinal game – there could be few regrets about an outstanding season that included their first NCAA Midwest Regional title.
“Take back those first 11 minutes and we’d still be playing hockey,” said junior defenseman Nick Jensen. “There’s no regrets on this team. We came this far and we’ve done extraordinary things.”
“That’s probably the end of the story, but it doesn’t tell the story of this hockey team,” Motzko said. “They have tremendous heart and character. They’re a hurting group. They came here with heart today to get it done, and they battled back like champions.”