On Nov. 6, in Quinnipiac's most frustrating contest in a young NCAA hockey season, it lost at home, 2-1 to American International, despite outshooting its opponent 40-17.
The loss dropped Quinnipiac to 3-4-1.
This wasn't supposed to happen to a motivated Bobcats team with 11 seniors on the roster. The rest of college hockey may not have shared coach Rand Pecknold's expectations, but entering his 19th season in Hamden, Conn., he had lofty goals for a program that hadn't moved beyond the ECAC tournament quarterfinals since 2007.
"I think for that first month of October, guys hadn't really been buying into our system and buying into being selfless. We had a lot of selfish play," Pecknold said. "We just came in as a coaching staff and said, 'We know we weren't very good last night, but let's move on. We've been good at having a short memory; this is what we need to do to be successful.'"
From that moment on, it would be more than three months before Quinnipiac lost another game, producing a remarkable run that catapulted the team to the top of the national rankings. With an ECAC quarterfinal this weekend against Cornell, Quinnipiac -- No. 1 since Feb. 11 -- is hoping for its first prolonged NCAA tournament run.
"As nice as that ranking is, we're trying not to put too much into it," senior defenseman and captain Zack Currie said. "It's been nice to stay there, but we're really just trying to take it as it comes."
The 18-0-3 run that got Quinnipiac national attention didn't start easily. In its first game after losing to American International, the Bobcats needed overtime to defeat a winless Colgate team they outshot 37-10. As frustrating as that contest was, it sparked an epic three-month saga that earned Quinnipiac the ECAC regular-season title and the top seed in the conference tournament.
Despite not having a player among the nation's top 80 scorers, Quinnipiac had arrived.
"We wanted to win a league championship, which we've already accomplished. We wanted to win a playoff championship in the ECAC and we wanted to win games in the NCAA tournament," Pecknold told NHL.com. "Probably the most important [goal] we made was to be better in practice every day, really focus on coming to the rink every day and coming to work. I give our guys a lot of credit. It's one of the reasons we've been good together. Our practice habits have been excellent."
One of the most intense players has been senior goaltender Eric Hartzell. The anchor of Quinnipiac's top-ranked defense is among the nation's statistical leaders in every goaltending category. On a team that has allowed two goals or fewer in 25 of its past 27 games, Hartzell has been the star, inspiring the school to launch a #HartzyForHobey social media campaign.
"I would say he's a lot more mentally focused [than previous years]. Not only during games, but also during practice," said senior forward Jeremy Langlois, the team's leading scorer and Hartzell's freshman roommate. "He's always out there early getting shots and doing what he needs to do. He's mentally in practice at all times when he's in the net. He's in there battling and that really makes him better."
While Hartzell has garnered much of the attention through Quinnipiac's run, it's a team effort that has propelled the Bobcats to the top of college hockey. That players have backgrounds that are uniquely diverse, at least by D-I hockey standards.
Langlois grew up playing in Tempe, Ariz., before moving to New Jersey as a high school senior to play junior hockey. He headlines a roster that includes three native Californians and seven players from British Columbia. Senior defenseman Mike Dalhuisen is from the Netherlands.
The team's only Connecticut native, sophomore Jordan Samuels-Thomas, transferred last year from Bowling Green, forcing him to sit out a full season. But in his first year suiting up with the Bobcats, the West Hartford native and 2009 NHL Draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers made an instant impact, leading the team with 13 goals.
The senior-heavy unit came into the season with its goals on a locker room whiteboard. But no one was predicting the team's historic No. 1 ranking.
"As a coaching staff, we felt we were going to be really good this year. But I'm not going to lie and say we thought we'd be No. 1 in the nation," Pecknold said. "It's a special season for us, no question. The thing I love about our guys is they're hungry. They're not satisfied with what we've accomplished. We're certainly respectful of what we've accomplished, we're excited about it. But they want more."
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