Northeastern University is No. 5 in one national poll, its highest ranking ever, and sits atop Hockey East.
But coach Greg Cronin's Huskies still are searching for their identity.
Going into last weekend's games at Vermont on Friday and Sunday night at No. 1 Boston University, Cronin talked about his comfort level with his team's progress.
"I'm thrilled that we're 6-2-1," said the fourth-year coach, "but this year we haven't really had that identity early. Last year there was a little more of an identity to our team that (emerged) in November when we hit our stride and went 11 games without losing. I just haven't seen that with a veteran team at this point."
Hot on the Huskies' trail are BU, BC and New Hampshire, three of the perennial powers in Hockey East and arguably the deepest league in Division I. Two of those coaches know Northeastern's identity is more than a work-in-progress.
"They are a solid hockey team," said UNH's Dick Umile, whose Wildcats squeaked by with a 3-2 victory on Halloween in Durham after Northeastern erased a two-goal deficit. The Huskies would come back 24 hours later and begin November by treating their fans to a 2-2 tie in the back end of the two-game series.
"Bad mental mistake off the faceoff caused that third goal and the loss," said Cronin. "And we sleep-walked the first 30 minutes," he said about second game. "Good teams don't do that."
The week before, Northeastern went into Alfond Arena and beat Maine 5-0 and 2-1; the week before that, NU ended national champion Boston College's 11-game win streak dating back to last March.
Regardless of this season's ebb and flow, Cronin knows that to avoid last season's strong start and swan-song finish at 16-18-3, the identity piece is key. "I just don't think we've been as consistent as we need to be to be a top-10 team."
BU's Jack Parker thinks Northeastern has all the makings for a long and impactful run.
"Northeastern can not only get home ice in the playoffs," said Parker before the Sunday night dogfight between the two, "but can win the league. I thought they were the most improved team in the league last year. And I think they'll be the most improved team standings-wise this year."
The Huskies highest-ever finish in league play was second place in 1988. A top-10 finish in mid-March would guarantee a fourth NCAA invite, and a first since 1994.
"We're having this identity crisis," said Cronin. "The power play has been a problem all year and it has enough talent to be productive. Right now we're over-coaching them; they're thinking too much. The power play is a manifestation of talent. Let that talent evolve so there's some rhythm on the ice. Our power play has no rhythm; it's choppy and static. We've got to figure that out.
"Our goalie is good enough that when we aren't having an A-game, he'll keep us in it. Our team has to be better; we can't rely on (Brad Thiessen
) every night.
There may be teams with two better players, but it's not likely there's a team with two more important players to NU's success than Thiessen and senior captain Joe Vitale
"I can't put it all on Joe," said Cronin about his captain, "but he's been one of the most visible players in his three years here. He finishes checks; he's a really intense puck-pursuit player. He skates through sticks and players to get to pucks. I'm waiting for him to get back to that. He's too good a player to be just a part of the scenery."
After the BC win, Vitale told the Boston Globe, "I seem to have a slow start every year."
Contributing to the evolving identity is a solid contingent of forwards, starting with Vitale's first-line wingers, sophomore Wade MacLeod and freshman Alex Tuckerman.
"MacLeod's a special player," said Cronin, "but also has to get more visible. Tuckerman has had to come in and earn his stripes. (Same) for Steve Quailer
Visibility, rhythm, consistency, identity.
"When this comes together," said Cronin, "I'll be a little more comfortable with where we stand right now nationally."
On Campus Clips
-- Air Force is 10-0-0 after taking two on the road at Holy Cross last weekend; Friday's game was a nail-biting 1-0 overtime win. It is the best start in program history. ... The only other teams without a loss are Minnesota at 6-0-4 and Cornell at 2-0-2. ... Maine is 6-0 since starting 0-3. ... Michigan sophomore Aaron Palushaj
took over the national scoring lead (7-13-20) with 4 assists against Western Michigan last weekend. ... The CCHA's 49 NHL draft choices are spread among 26 of the League's 30 teams. Anaheim, Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, New Jersey, San Jose and St. Louis all own the pro rights to three CCHA players. ... League leaders are Northeastern in Hockey East; Minnesota in the WCHA; Miami in the CCHA; Princeton, Dartmouth and Harvard tied in the ECACHL; Air Force in Atlantic Hockey; Robert Morris and Alabama-Huntsville tied in the CHA. ... Former Vermont coaching great Mike Gilligan will be on medical leave from the university for the next several weeks while he undergoes chemotherapy in Boston, beginning this past Monday.