Hockey East's Merrimack Warriors were NHL.com's No. 1 surprise the first half of the season.
There's no denying that the CCHA's Western Michigan Broncos -- and the Union College Dutchmen in the ECACHL (see sidebar) -- are tops the second half.
With the longest unbeaten streak this season among the 58 teams, first-year coach Jeff Blashill got his Broncos going before the new year with an 8-0-6 run from Dec. 11 until a 3-1 loss to Miami on Feb. 12.
"We're certainly happy with the progress we've made," Blashill told NHL.com. "We have a good foundation in place to be good the next few years, but right now we recognize there are great opportunities at hand."
Indeed, there are. The Broncos are headed toward a possible fourth-ever NCAA tournament appearance, and first since 1996.
The season-ending slate includes a grueling six-game schedule against three perennial powers.
Two weekends back, Western split with Miami, then lost and tied against Michigan last weekend to run its current record to 15-9-10 overall and 9-8-9 in CCHA play.
The regular season ends this weekend with two games against first-place Notre Dame.
The Broncos cling to a two-point lead over Northern Michigan in fourth place in the CCHA standings.
The top five teams earn the coveted first-round playoff bye and home ice in the second-round best-of-three CCHA Tournament. The four winners advance to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA championship March 18 and 19.
Western may need to win that title -- with the NCAA tournament automatic bid for each league's tournament champion -- or earn an at-large invite based on the pairwise rankings to become one of the final 16.
Right now they sit at No. 17 in the pairwise, right on the bubble to get in at-large.
"The best defense," said Blashill about his team's most successful components, "is possessing the puck in the other team's end. That's helped our numbers. We've gotten very good goaltending the past few months. Senior Jerry Kuhn
has kept our goals against down. Nick Pisellini
started the year and played a bunch, but right now Jerry's our guy unless something happens where he struggles.
"Up front, two guys who are the best players and make the biggest impact each night are senior Max Campbell
who has an NHL-type shot and freshman Chase Balisy
. He's very, very smart and also one of our best defensive players -- an impact player."
Balisy is also the Broncos leading scorer with 12 goals and 29 points.
"On the back end, we have four good ones," Blashill said. "But the two that have played best against the other team's best forwards are Danny DeKeyser and Luke Witkowski
. Both are 6-foot-2, skate very well and can move the puck up ice.
"Our guys understand what we need to do to play great hockey. When we possess the puck and attack the other team, we can play with anybody. The mentality is coming to work everyday to get better."
Blashill depends of one key guy to deliver that intangible.
"Our team captain, Ian Slater, has done a great job of extending the coaches' message that every single day we come, we'll get better, whether in the classroom, the weight room or on the ice," Blashill said.
A few Bronco alums like Jamal Mayers
, Joe Corvo
, and Keith Jones
carved out NHL careers by following a same-type message. Others like former Rangers GM Neil Smith and ABC television's John Saunders
also benefitted from the Western Michigan experience.
"Our alums are now getting involved and excited," Blashill said. "Hopefully that continues because ultimately this is their program. We need them involved."
The Broncos three NCAA games were all one-and-done losses. Ironically, Mayers' last college game was a 6-1 loss to Clarkson in the 1996 tournament after accumulating 159 points over four years.
"How they doing?" the San Jose forward asked a few weeks ago with the aforementioned streak still in intact. "I've kind of not paid attention because it hurts to see them in the lower part of the standings. I knew they started well and it's good to see them keep it going. Now [their record] makes me even more proud. Tough test to end the season, huh?
"I make it back for a couple of golf tournaments. I'll definitely make it back again."
As the Broncos enter the stretch run, Blashill said, "Each game now is a playoff game."
On Campus Clips:
It was quite a week last week for the Northeastern Huskies. On Feb. 14, Greg Cronin's team lost one of the most exciting Beanpot final games in tournament history, 7-6 in overtime, to then-No. 1 Boston College. A few days later, Cronin and assistant coach Albie O'Connell were suspended indefinitely because of potential NCAA communication violations around recruiting procedures. Assistant coach Sebastien Laplante
assumed head coach duties on the eve of two more games against BC. Last Friday night, the Eagles and Huskies played to a 7-7 tie; 24 hours later, Northeastern prevailed, 2-1.