PITTSBURGH — Cheerleaders and a pep band as soon as they stepped off the plane. A police escort on the ride in from the airport. Their school’s logo plastered about eight feet wide across the Consol Energy Center atrium. NHL ice awaiting for their use.
The NCAA sure rolls out the red carpet for teams that advance to the Frozen Four. And it’s fair to say this season’s qualifiers aren’t used to it.
“We were kind of in awe,” said UMass Lowell captain Riley Wetmore.
“Pretty cool,” teammate Chad Ruhwedel said. “I’ve never experienced that before.”
Join the club. As college hockey’s national showcase prepares to launch in Western Pennsylvania for the first time, there are three programs here — Lowell, St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac — that have never been to this far. And Yale, the fourth member, is hardly a grizzled veteran. In fact, it’s been 61 years since the Bulldogs have made it this far.
Indeed, power programs such as Boston College, Michigan and Minnesota aren’t here, and a first-time champion will emerge on Saturday night. Just further proof of the growth of college hockey, where the so-called little guys can catch up to the heavyweights of the sport ... quickly.
“You really see the parity throughout Division I,” Lowell forward Joseph Pendenza said. “Now, basically every team can win any night. You see the No. 1 team will lose to the No. 20 team in the country. It just shows how strong each team and each league is becoming and how anybody can make it.”
Lowell (28-10-2) will play Yale (20-12-3) in the first semifinal 4:30 p.m. today at the home of the NHL’s Penguins. Quinnipiac (29-7-5) and St. Cloud State (25-15-1) meet in the nightcap that follows at 8 p.m.
The sport’s competitive balance this season might not have been better illustrated than in one of the glamour conferences, Hockey East. Two points separated the top five teams in the final standings. More striking, it wasn’t the usual suspects — Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire or Maine — that emerged with the league title.