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Quinnipiac goalie wants to complete title run

Union center Max Novak (18), left, takes a shot on goal as Quinnipiac goalie Eric Hartzell (33), right, blocks the puck during the second period of their East Regional final in the NCAA college hockey tournament, Sunday, March 31, 2013, in Providence, R.I.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013, 11:24 p.m.

Eric Hartzell has a background that almost seems as if it was fabricated for a movie about a kid who grew up a hockey player.

His hometown? White Bear Lake, Minn. — a town of 23,000 with a name that sounds as if it's straight out of Central Casting.

His father? A hockey coach, of course. Hartzell was born a little more than a decade after dad Kevin Hartzell won the 1979 NCAA hockey championship on a Minnesota team coached by future U.S. hockey legend Herb Brooks. Less than a year later, Brooks would lead Team USA to “Miracle on Ice” gold. Kevin Hartzell coached in the Unites States Hockey League for 13 seasons.

The childhood home of Eric Hartzell, naturally, had a pond in its backyard. And in a place where the average winter low temperature is approximately 11 degrees, that pond was, more often than not, frozen and the site of scores of pick-up hockey games.

“I played there my entire life,” Hartzell said. “I always loved scoring goals.”

Not anymore. Now, Hartzell prevents them.

The iron-man starting goalie for the team with the NCAA's best goals-against average, Hartzell has led No. 1-ranked Quinnipiac to its first Frozen Four.

The Bobcats will play Saint Cloud State in the second national semifinal at 8 p.m. Thursday at Consol Energy Center. The play of Hartzell (1.55 goals-against average, .933 save percentage, five shutouts) is the primary reason the Hamden, Conn., school of 8,400 is two victories away from its first NCAA Division I national championship in any sport.

“He's been our best payer,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “We've got a really good core of forwards and a real good group of defensemen, but our leading scorer ranks (tied for 99th) in the country. We win by defense, and Hartzy's been great.

“The guys have been very good in front of him, but there's been games we struggled and he always found a way to get us points. Our 21-game unbeaten streak, there were times we were not at our best. Hartzell would save us for that period or two or three and steal the game for us.”

Hartzell liked scoring when he was a youngster, but it wasn't long before his proficiency between the pipes was discovered.

About the time Hartzell was first strapping on the goalie pads on the backyard frozen pond when he was 8 or 9, Quinnipiac was making the jump from Division III to Division I in men's ice hockey for the 1998-99 season.

Back then, who could have envisioned that the Bobcats would carry a No. 1 ranking throughout much of a season, be in the Frozen Four and have a Hobey Baker Award finalist in goal?

Hartzell and the leading scorer of his semifinal opponent, Drew LeBlanc, are joined by Johnny Gaudreau as the finalists for the prestigious Hobey Baker. The so-called “Heisman of Hockey” will be awarded Friday at Consol Energy Center.

“A couple months ago when the list of 77 came out, I told everyone even then that it was a great honor just being part of that when you look at the unbelievable names in that 77 and the incredible players who have won it in the past,” Hartzell said.

“Then to be in the final 10? Now the final three? It just keeps getting better and better. It's so fun, but I couldn't do it without the guys. The Hobey Baker is a 100 percent team effort, and everyone here knows that defense is our priority and that's why our goals-against is so low.”

A senior who stands 6-foot-4, Hartzell said he has increasingly learned to use size to his advantage. Hartzell, who has started all but one game this season for Quinnipiac, will take over the national lead in minutes played seven seconds into Thursday's semifinal.

He is third nationally in goals-against average, eighth in save percentage and tied for third in shutouts.

“He's remarkably athletic and got lightning-quick feet,” Pecknold said. “He moves really well for his size. He's got NHL feet and NHL skating ability.”

Hartzell is considered one of the top NHL free agents remaining in college hockey once the season ends. His immediate focus, though, is winning two more games as a Bobcat.

“We still have a lot we want to accomplish,” Hartzell said. “This season's been incredible for us, but we still have a big goal in mind. After all we've done, we still want to be the last team standing at the end of the week.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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