Quinnipiac ready for national test

Quick, name the only Division I hockey program that hasn't had a losing record over the past 15 seasons.

It's not Boston College or Michigan or Minnesota or any other brand-name hockey school. It's the Quinnipiac Bobcats.

Coached by Rand Pecknold, the Bobcats have been flying under the radar for years, even though the team has been consistently good. This year, however, the school from Hamden, Conn. turned heads in a big way, ripping off a 21-game unbeaten streak (18-0-3) from November to February. By the end of the ECAC Hockey playoffs on Saturday, Quinnipiac held the best record in the nation at 27-7-5 and, more importantly, held the No. 1 spot in the national PairWise rankings.

The biggest reward to date in this standard-setting season is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and the top seed in the East Region, where Quinnipiac will face Canisius on Saturday in Providence, R.I.

"We're still a young program," Pecknold said. "We're only in our 15th year of Division I hockey. We're still in our infancy. So in a lot of ways, we still have a lot to prove. But we have a competitive group.

"We play hard because they want to play hard. The kids love to compete. There's a lot of character in that locker room, and they're hungry. They want to win championships, they want to win games. It's a special group."

When Pecknold replaced Jim Armstrong in 1994, the Bobcats (then known as the Braves) were a D-II independent team that hadn't recorded double-digit wins in six years. Pecknold's first at the helm (6-15-1) wasn't much better. The Quinnipiac Braves eventually joined the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (now Atlantic Hockey) in 1999, changed their name to Bobcats in 2002, and then upgraded to ECAC Hockey in 2005. The only previous trip to the NCAA tournament was in 2002 and Quinnipiac lost to Cornell, 6-1.

This year's senior-laden squad, however, appears to be Pecknold's best and one that could find its way all the way to Pittsburgh and the Frozen Four in early April.

"Our superstar is [goaltender] Eric Hartzell, and he's one of the best players in college hockey," Pecknold said. "But our D-corps, we're seven deep, and we play six every game. They're all good. Zach Davies has had the best year of the bunch. He's been phenomenal. Up front, we score by committee. We're three lines deep, and my fourth line has chipped in. That's a big reason for our success, when you have some depth. We come to work, we compete, we battle, and we do little things well."

The team's backbone, though, is Hartzell, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound Hobey Baker finalist from White Bear Lake, Minn., who was named ECAC Hockey's Player of the Year.

"He's had a monster year," said Pecknold. "He's the best player in our league, and he's probably one of the three best in college hockey. He's the best goalie in college hockey. We've had the season we've had because of Eric Hartzell. We certainly have other good players, but there's been a few games this year when we really struggled and he's bailed us out.”"

The numbers that Hartzell has posted are impressive, including a 1.52 goals against average (third nationally) and a save percentage of .934 (eighth) to go along with five shutouts (tied for second).

"I've finally developed what works for me, and it's been paying off," Hartzell said. "I've developed a sense of calmness in my game, and that came through a lot of work with [former NHL goalie] Steve Valiquette. He brought out the film a lot, and he showed me frame-by-frame what my reaction skills are like. And they're a lot better than I thought they were. So that helped me stabilize my game and become a lot more patient, and let the puck come to me. At the same time, I'm a pretty athletic kid, and I try to keep my athleticism in my game, and not just be a blocking goaltender."

Hartzell's dedication to hard work reflects the team's mantra that games are often won in practice.

"Everybody knows that he's an integral part of our team. He's been just an incredible, solid block back there for us to build off of," said Bobcat senior captain Zack Currie. "We have a lot of skill out in front of him, but his commitment to his game and his practice habits and his focus is next to none. He's obsessed with the little things, and building on getting better each and every day.”"

And, as everyone knows, a hot goaltender can make all the difference in a short tournament like the NCAAs. Just don't suggest that the Bobcats don't belong on this national stage.

"“We know what we have to do every night to be successful," Hartzell said. "“Our identity is just an extremely hard-working team from start to finish, and we have the skill to win some big-time games against some big-time teams."