The 2009-10 NCAA schedule reaches the halfway mark with the holidays and New Year.
Scan the 58 teams nationwide for the top 10 surprises. Only the Ferris State Bulldogs (CCHA) come close to the Bobcats of Quinnipiac University (ECACHL) in Hamden, Conn., as the most surprising team of this first half.
With players from 11 states, four provinces, and one from Europe, the Bobcats were pegged a lowly No. 11 of 12 in the ECACHL preseason poll.
"I thought it would be a little bit of a rebuilding year for us," 16-year coach Rand Pecknold told NHL.com, "but there's no way we're going to finish in the bottom four in the league. We had enough coming back, and we like our freshmen. If we got enough from our goaltending spot, we could sneak into the top four."
How about No. 1 in the league and top-10 in the nation?
Pecknold's eclectic gang of go-getters may not be in Detroit in April at the Frozen Four, but if Quinnipiac comes even close to duplicating their current of record of 13-3-1 overall, and 7-2-0 in the league, they will be one of 16 in the NCAA tournament for only the second time in their program history, and a first since 2002.
Ranked as high as a best-ever-in-program-history No. 4 in the national polls -- and a consistent top-10 the past several weeks -- they are also undefeated at home with a perfect 8-0-0 record.
Reverse a few results of an early December road trip -- a third-period yawn against Yale in a 7-4 loss (in which the Bobcats led, 4-3), a burp in a 2-1 loss to surging Brown, and a 1-1 hiccup against Holy Cross -- and Quinnipiac would not only have a cushion in the league ahead of Cornell, but would also be ranked among national leaders Miami and Denver.
"We need to get back to what we do well, and that's compete hard," Pecknold said before the Holy Cross game on Dec. 10 with a contingent of NHL scouts in the press box. "When you get in the top 10, teams you are playing take notice."
Well they should.
That aforementioned "goaltending spot" is getting a lot from sophomore Dan Clarke.
Clarke was named national Player of the Month for November by the Commissioners Association complements of a sparkling .936 save percentage and a 2.00 GAA.
"Great progress," said Pecknold about his stellar goalie. "Struggled midseason last year, had some areas he needed to clean up and adjust and adapt. And he did it."
"Teams will be gunning for us," said Clarke after the Holy Cross game, "but I try to keep that pressure off me. I had a big summer; came in wanting the No. 1 job, and it's still there. I'm just trying to pay my dues."
In front of Clarke is a defense led by the "Zach attack" -- senior Zach Hansen and freshman Zach Davies. They've played shutdown D while combing for 20 points in the offensive zone.
While Quinnipiac has no NHL draftees on its roster, those NHL scouts have Hansen, out of Bear Lake, Minn., on one of their free-agent radar screens.
"He's our No. 1 on D," said Pecknold summarily about Hansen. "Very competitive, plays both ways, and our quarterback on the power play. He and Zach Davies, who's been outstanding as a freshman. And junior Brett Dickinson has been very steady.
"Two other guys that have been great and always solid are (seniors) Mike Atkinson and Greg Holt. Good at times and OK before, but this year have been excellent -- our unsung heroes.
"I thought we'd struggle early as our freshmen defensemen transitioned to getting comfortable at this level. Obviously I was wrong because the freshmen D have been good out of the gate."
Also consistently good out of the gate for four years running are three forwards: captain Jean-Marc Beaudoin, asst. captain Brandon Wong
, and Eric Lampe.
Combined, they've totaled 60 points so far.
But the key to the sum of these three parts lies in the individual internal and external talents each brings.
"Beaudoin's been a fantastic captain," said Pecknold about his heart-and-soul senior. "You can't judge a kid until the season's over, but I can't explain how happy I am with him. He's just an A++ kid -- great character and role model. What he's doing this year is speaking up; holding kids accountable. No screaming or yelling; just pulling kids aside and saying, 'That's not how we're doing things.'"
Put a microphone to Beudoin -- out of St. Paul, Alta, -- and each word effuses that mild manner.
"It's a special year," he said. "We knew that right from the get-go. These last three games are good in a way because we can look back at our mistakes and work on those to get better as a hockey team.
"We're definitely wearing the bulls-eye. You can talk all you want in the dressing room, but it has to come on the ice."
Enter Wong and Lampe, the two leading red-light igniters with 12 and 9 goals, respectively.
For Wong -- out of Victoria B.C. -- consider his current and future stock with these two facts: Freshman year he went 27-17-44 in 40 games. Currently, he and St. Cloud State's Ryan Lasch are the only two active D-I active players with more than 60 career goals and 60 career assists.
Slowed by injuries last season, Wong's status as a Hobey Baker candidate should rise into late March.
"His stick is great and his hand-eye coordination is unbelievable," said Pecknold about his Victoria, B.C. native. "When he competes, he scores."
"Not a surprise how we've played," said the confident Wong, "but maybe with the total number of wins. Rand demands work ethics. That's passed on down from Jean-Marc our captain to the rest. As seniors, we made that a must all season."
A key "must" in the next 10 weeks is a few intangibles, starting with consistent snarl.
"Ultimately," said Pecknold, "we're really good because we really compete. Play with emotion. You can't fake emotion. If they start to burn out, we'll be in trouble. It's a long year. We need to be careful of that burnout factor."
"I want to finish this out with some championships," said Wong about what's ahead. "Bring something to the program. In March we'll be an even better team."
Holiday tourney time --
The next two weekends include a full slate of holiday tournaments across the Division I landscape. They include the following: The Florida Estero Classic in Estero among Cornell, Princeton, Maine and Colorado College. ... The Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit among Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Rensselaer. ... The UConn Hockey Classic in Storrs, Conn., among Massachusetts, Union, Bentley and Connecticut. ... The Denver Cup in Denver among Nebraska-Omaha, St. Lawrence, Boston College and Denver. ... The Dodge Holiday Classic in Minneapolis among Northern Michigan, Clarkson, Bowling Green and Minnesota. ... The Catamount Cup in Burlington, Vt., among Mercyhurst, Minn.-Duluth, Alabama-Huntsville and Vermont. ... The Shillelagh Tournament in Hoffman Estates, Ill. among Niagara, North Dakota, Colgate and Notre Dame. ... The Badger Showdown in Madison, Wis., among Ferris State, Yale, Merrimack and Wisconsin. ... The Ledyard Bank Classic in Hanover, N.H., among Mass.-Lowell, Holy Cross, Northeastern and Dartmouth.
On Campus Clips --
Gold-medal winning figure skater and Bowling Green native Scott Hamilton donated $500,000 to Bowling Green's "Bring Back the Glory" campaign to endow the Scott Hamilton Hockey Scholarship. ... Stat leaders at the break include Canisius's Cory Conacher and Michigan State's Corey Tropp
with 27 points each; Tropp leads all with 16 goals; James Marcou
of Massachusetts leads in assists with 21; Justin Fontaine (Minn.-Duluth) and Blake Geoffrion
(Wisconsin) are tied in power-play goals with nine; Mercyhurst's Mike Gurtler has three shorthanded tallies; Cody Reichard is 10-1-2 for Miami with a sparkling .938 save percentage and 1.34 GAA to lead all goaltenders. ... 2010 marks the 58th year in the storied history of the WCHA, with the league owning a record 36 national championships. It will also mark the final season with a membership consisting of 10 teams, as both Bemidji State University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha come on board in the fall as the 11th and 12th members.