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Top-10 NCAA mid-season surprises

by Bob Snow
"Our players are learning what they need to do," Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said last month after his Catamounts beat national power Miami. "I think it really rests in a fine balance."

At the break, Vermont is occupying the top tier of Hockey East, the conference with arguably the best top-to-bottom balance in Division I. 

There's always a fine balance in selecting the most surprising performances at the break. Here's a look at's rankings of the best surprises before the second half begins.

No. 10 - Bentley in Atlantic Hockey: Mention the Falcons in Division I, and especially in Atlantic Hockey, and usually you mean the Air Force Falcons. But give kudos to the other Falcons, from Bentley University, where finance, banking and GPA get more attention than power-play goals, overtime wins and GAA. Nonetheless, Bentley once again is above .500 at 5-4-1 in the league. Bentley lost just two games in a recent eight-game run.

No. 9 - Maine in Hockey East: Tabbed at No. 9 in the 10-team preseason poll, Maine started the season with question marks in goal after losing Ben Bishop early to St. Louis, question marks about offense after an anemic 2007-08 and question marks about how far the defense could carry the team. The Black Bears have replaced most of those question marks with exclamation points, winning seven straight and nine of their last 11. At 10-5-1, they are lodged in the middle of Hockey East, just two points behind second-place Vermont and BU.

No. 8 - Northeastern in Hockey East: No. 1 in the league at the break two years in a row, the Huskies were's No. 1 midseason surprise in 2007 before faltering in the second half. Any team able to consistently crack the BU-BC-New Hampshire hold at the top of this league two years in a row is an accolade-worthy crew. Northeastern boasts a ton of upper-class leadership and one of the country's top goalies in junior Brad Thiessen. This season's team is headed for an NCAA Tournament berth.

No. 7 - Michigan's Aaron Palushaj in the CCHA: Michigan's scoring machine last year included Hobey Baker winner Kevin Porter with 63 points and Chad Kolarik with 56. Sensational freshmen snipers included Max Apriority with 39 points and Palushaj with 44. Porter and Kolarik graduated, Pacioretty left early for the NHL with Montreal, standout defensemen Mark Mitera and Steve Kampfer went down with injuries two games into the season, and backup goaltender Bryan Hogan is pushing for the top job to replace Billy Sauer. All Palushaj has done is provide stability, leadership and 8 goals and 17 assists to help keep the Wolverines afloat in the middle of the season -- and league -- at 11-7-0. 

No. 6 - Miami in the CCHA: Enrico Blasi continues to be in the Spencer Penrose consideration as coach of the year. His RedHawks narrowly have missed a first-ever Frozen Four appearance the past two years. Miami lost horses Nathan Davis and Ryan Jones to graduation, yet at the break the RedHawks are nipping at Notre Dame's heels for the league lead at 12-3-3 overall and 10-2-2-1 in league play. 'Tis the season to be jolly in Oxford, Ohio, where sophomores Pat Cannone and Carter Camper are igniting red lights, senior captains Brian Kaufman and Kevin Roeder are delivering the leadership, and a pair of freshman goaltenders in Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp successfully are sharing the netminding.   

No. 5 - Alaska in the CCHA: The Nanooks, under first-year coach Dallas Ferguson, are 9-5-4 after two seasons of nine and 11 wins, respectively. The Nanooks are third behind Notre Dame and Miami in the conference. The schedule resumes in 2009 with four in a row on the road -- two at Michigan State, then a Jan. 9-10 back-to-backer with No.1 Notre Dame.
No. 4 -- Air Force in Atlantic Hockey: The other Falcons in this league are tied with Notre Dame for most wins at 14, including a nation's best 12 straight to open the season; they've also teetered near the top 10 nationally. In sum, Air Force is en route to another postseason appearance, and the flight plan is intact with three of the country's leading scorers in Jacques Lamoreux, Brent Olson and Greg Flynn. Team defense appears this team's only tweaking need.

No. 3 - Wisconsin in the WCHA:
How does a Wisconsin team that won the national championship just three seasons ago rate as a surprise? The Badgers came out of the gate 0-6-1, but have gone 9-1-1 since. Back as a top-tier WCHA team thanks to senior goalie Shane Connelly and balanced scoring, the Badgers' main second-half need seems to be shoring up the big "D" -- as in discipline.

No. 2 - Dartmouth in the ECACHL: Dartmouth returned from Stockholm, Sweden just two months after being pegged for No. 11 in the 12-team league's preseason poll. But Dartmouth won six of its first eight games, with one of the losses coming in overtime to defending national champion Boston College. It all adds up to third place behind top-10 ranked Princeton and Cornell.

No. 1 - Vermont in Hockey East: Last season was Vermont's third in Hockey East after departing the ECACHL. The Catamounts went to the league's tournament semifinal, and this season, the Catamounts are second in the league at 6-3-1, and 9-4-2 overall. They have a better record on the road than in the cacophonous confines of Gutterson Fieldhouse. No two games showed how deep this team can go than those late November back-to-back 4-3 wins at Boston University. There are no big names on the Catamounts' roster, just that "fine balance," led by Peter Lenes and Victor Stalberg, that is keeping Vermont in second place at the break.  

On Campus Clips -- In the ongoing celebration of Hockey East's 25th anniversary, former Boston College standout Brian Leetch was named the league's top All-Time Defensive Defenseman. Leetch patrolled the Eagles' blue line for just his freshman season, 1986-87, culminating in Hockey East Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year, and MVP of the Hockey East Tournament. ... Colorado College's Chad Rau took over the nation's scoring lead with 27 points (11-16). ... Don "Toot" Cahoon recently picked up his 121st career victory, making him the winningest coach in the history of the UMass program. ... Upcoming holiday tournaments feature the following on Dec. 27-28: The Great Lakes Invitational with Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and North Dakota; the Florida College Classic with Maine, Cornell, Colgate and St. Cloud State; and the Badger Showdown, featuring Wisconsin, Lake Superior State, Harvard and Alabama-Huntsville. ... On Dec. 28-29, it's the Ledyard Bank Tournament with Army, Dartmouth, Massachusetts and Bemidji State. ... On Dec. 29-30, it's the UConn Hockey Classic, with Connecticut, Merrimack, Quinnipiac and Air Force.

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