PITTSBURGH — Their Nutmeg State brethren had just knocked off UMass-Lowell in the first Frozen Four semifinal, and the Quinnipiac Bobcats were not to be outdone.
So they got to work on making it an all-Connecticut final.
Just 1:49 into their game — seven seconds after St. Cloud State’s Joey Benik had been called for hooking — Quinnipiac had already taken the lead.
By the first break, Quinnipiac was up by three goals, and was on its way to a justification of its No. 1 ranking with a spot in the national championship game.
By the end of the game, it was Quinnipiac, 4-1, with the second and third periods seemingly mere formalities as Bobcats goalie Eric Hartzell justified all his genius in the regular season with a masterful performance.
Quinnipiac’s win gives rise to an odd pairing in Saturday night’s final. Quinnipiac (30-7-5), the top team in the country, against Yale (21-12-3), a team that squeaked into the tournament, in an all-ECAC final.
And that left the large contingent of yellow-clad fans chanting, “One more game,” as the buzzer sounded at the Consol Energy Center.
Part of the quick start for Quinnipiac could, perhaps, be traced back to coach Rand Pecknold’s pregame speech. Knowing that the first game might go into overtime, Pecknold covered that, worked around that. And so Quinnipiac came out ready.
“I thought we used it to our advantage,” Pecknold said. “I said we need to be prepared for that. We’re a veteran team. We have great character. We handle adversity well. And we needed to jump St. Cloud.”
“I don’t know if they came out buzzing and we came out flat-footed,” St. Cloud’s Drew LeBlanc said. “We come out different, it’s a different game.
“Give them credit, they must have handled it better than us. They came out flying. We came out flat.”
That all started with Jordan Samuels-Thomas coming around the left side of the goal, and throwing the puck into the crease on the power play. It went off the skate of goalie Ryan Faragher and in for Samuels-Thomas’s 17th goal of the season.
“I just wanted to come out there and just get right to my game,” Samuels-Thomas said. “Be strong on the walls, be strong around the net. Kind of set the pace.”
Samuels-Thomas was again part of the second goal, the puck going from him to Ben Arnt at 5:07. And then it was Jeremy Langlois scoring off a rebound at 11:19, off a shot by Zach Davies, giving his team its third score just after Quinnipiac had finished killing a penalty.
The Bobcats had scored on three of their first five shots.
“I think we’d do anything to replay the first 10 minutes of the hockey game,” St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko said.
It wasn’t just the scoring. It was a tribute to Hobey Baker award finalist Hartzell — who now has a 1.53 goals against average — that his team remained up against the second-ranked scoring offense, which includes fellow Hobey Baker finalist LeBlanc.
“I thought Hartzell was great again,” Pecknold said. “I thought he was the best player on the ice tonight. You saw why Hartzell is in the Hobey Baker hat trick right now.”
Hartzell turned away 13 shots in the opening period, with the Huskies having some excellent chances they couldn’t convert. There was an especially active power play five minutes into the second period, in which Hartzell got pummeled — and didn’t budge.
But the goaltender finally broke just after that power play ended, with Benik converting from the left side of the goal at 6:25. That was all, though, with Hartzell stopping the other 33 shots he faced.
Quinnipiac got it back, with Kellen Jones going in alone on Faragher at 14:31 of the second period for his 13th goal of the season.
Overall, though, despite that brief lapse, Hartzell spent the evening demonstrating just how good he can be the day before he will find out if he’s won college hockey’s top honor.
And, because of that, Quinnipiac is headed to the final, with the chance to win the school’s first title.
“We might not have the most talent in the country, but I think we are the best team,” Pecknold said. “Now we need to go and prove it.”