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February 15, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

The No. 1 Q ...

How Far Can Quinnipiac Ride its Dream Season?

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer

On May 5, 1994, a young Rand Pecknold – not even four years removed from his career as a prolific scorer for Connecticut College – joined nearby Quinnipiac University as the then-Division II program's new head coach.

Things were, of course, quite a bit different back in the Spring of '94. Less than two months earlier, Apple Computer, Inc. released the first Macintosh computers to use a PowerPC Microprocessor. Schindler's List had just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Later that summer, Nelson Mandela would be inaugurated as President of South Africa, while closer to home, a strike would end the 1994 Major League Baseball season.

In Hamden, Conn., meanwhile, Pecknold began the task of running a hockey program that had no budget and that hadn't seen a double-digit win total since 1989. At the same time, Pecknold worked as a teacher at a nearby high school – putting his recent Master's Degree in education to good use.

"My first year, I was a part-time head coach, and we practiced at midnight," recalled Pecknold, now in his 19th year as head coach of the Bobcats "I was teaching high school, too. I would sleep from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., then go to school, then sleep from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., like I was living my life in 12-hour increments. It was crazy. Then at 6 p.m., I’d get up and do all the recruiting, then go to practice.

"Not to mention that after 14 games, I was 1-12-1. It was tough."

Somehow, in the nearly two decades since then, Quinnipiac has slowly and steadily climbed from anonymity to relevancy – a journey that, while perhaps far from complete even today, has brought the Bobcats to the current No. 1 position in the Pairwise rankings and the No. 1 ranking in all major national polls.

The Braves, as they were called from the program's inception in 1975 to 1999, ended up 6-15-1 in Pecknold's first sleepless season of 1994-95, before they improved to 11-12-4 the following year. As it turned out, that would be the last time Pecknold experienced a losing campaign, supervising 16 consecutive winning seasons since, along with a pair of seamless transitions – from Division II to Division I in 1998-99 and from Atlantic Hockey to the ECAC in 2005-06, where the Bobcats are the only conference team to win at least one playoff series each season ever since.

Still, Quinnipiac entered this season looking for its first ECAC title and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002. On November 6, 2012 – Election Day in the United States – Quinnipiac lost 2-1 at home to American International, incidentally a team whose last winning season came before Pecknold took the job at Quinnipiac. The Bobcats' record on the day President Obama was re-elected was a modest 3-3-1.

Since then? A 3-2 overtime victory – the Bobcats' first triumph in their last 19 overtime games – over Colgate on Nov. 9, on the strength of a game-winner by senior Russell Goodman, put the Bobcats over .500 on the season.

And they haven't lost since, a remarkable stretch of 21 games (18-0-3), a school record.

And while there is plenty of credit and an abundance of accolades to be shared beyond Pecknold – from leading scorer Jeremy Langlois to senior Mike Dalhuisen, the nation's plus/minus leader among defensemen – the Bobcats' coach is decisive in identifying the key player who has led Quinnipiac to the top.

"In the end, Eric Hartzell is our best player," says Pecknold of his senior goaltender, who leads the country in winning percentage, is third in goals-against average (1.46) and is seventh in save percentage (.936). "He has been phenomenal this year. When we’ve struggled at times, he’s always been there to bail us out. Not only is he our best player, but he’s the best player in our league, and probably one of the best players in the country right now.

"I think he’s more than a legitimate candidate [for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award]. He’s been outstanding. He’s the best player on the best team in the country right now, so I don’t think you can argue with that. In terms of value to his team, I think Eric Hartzell is the Most Valuable Player in the country."

It's been a long maturation process for Hartzell, something he and his coach admit today. Although he was the consistent starter the last two years, there were times his attitude wasn't fully conducive to being the elite goaltender he had the potential to be.

But this year, the 6-foot-4 veteran netminder has stood taller than ever, starting each of Quinnipiac's wins and playing every minute since the 21-game unbeaten streak began in November.

"He’s had a great four-year maturation process," Pecknold said. "He’s gotten better each year, and he took a huge jump this year into an elite goaltender. His compete level is phenomenal, and it translates right into the game. He has worked on areas he needed to improve upon, one of them being puck-handling. Once a week in practice, we set up drills where he’s forced to handle the puck under pressure, and it’s really made him a better goaltender.

"But the biggest thing he’s improved upon is shaking off a goal. It’s so easy for goaltenders to get scored upon. They think about it; they get rattled a little bit. But Hartzell just moves on. He’s locked in and so focused.

"You can score on him, but you’re not going to score again."

Hartzell grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn., and admits that although Quinnipiac is on the tip of every college hockey fan’s tongue this season, he had never heard of the school while growing up.

"I hadn't [heard of Quinnipiac]," said Hartzell, who has allowed more than two goals in a game this season only twice. "The only reason why I did was because my neighbor, one of my best friends growing up, [defenseman] Zach Hansen, played here. When I started getting recruited by Quinnipiac, it was as easy as a phone call to Zach to find out more about the school. As soon as I came out and saw the scenic beauty of the campus and the great facility up here, it was an eye-opener, and it was tough to say no. I did my research and fell in love.”

Hartzell himself, despite whispers of Hobey Baker potential floating around, is of course quick to deflect the attention.

“I give most of the credit to my team," said the senior. "My defensive corps has been absolutely fantastic this year. Our success comes from a bunch of hard-working guys and guys who want to win a championship. As far as my personal game, I really identified who I was as a goalie. My game has jumped into a new level just because of certain things I worked on as far as my mental side of the game. Keeping my mind in one place at one time was a big thing I worked on.”

Eyes on the Prize

Certainly, the challenge for the Bobcats now is not so much to continue their unprecedented unbeaten streak; it's to maintain a level of motivation that could lead to much loftier goals – of a strong push towards the NCAA championship. Like with Union last year, there will continue to be naysayers until Quinnipiac proves them wrong. Which is to be expected for a team that has never been "there" before.

"It’s cool to be able to say that we’re the first team in Quinnipiac history to be No. 1," said Hartzell. "But at the same time, what’s important to us is an ECAC Cleary Cup championship, then an ECAC tournament championship, and then an NCAA championship.

“The boys really have a good feel of what winning’s like, and we like it. We want to keep winning, and we want to keep striving to be the best we can be. We never thought we’d go 21 games without losing, but we have the character and personality on this team to make it possible."

Of course, with success has come plenty of attention – plenty of player and coach interviews, answering questions about being the top-ranked team in the nation, about being the only team in college hockey to have won over 20 games. The school itself held a news conference after reaching No. 1 last week — despite having been No. 1 in the Pairwise for a while — a move that could be seen as premature gloating.

But Pecknold and the team is trying to make sure it's not that way.

"For the most part, we’ve been pretty good and on task," said Pecknold. "Monday was a big day in our program’s history with the No. 1 ranking. That was the first time we got a little bit rattled and off focus. Our Tuesday practice was poor. So I stopped practice, we had a little chat, it got a little better, and after the practice, we had a 30-minute video session on everything that we did poorly against Cornell and Colgate. While we won those games, we didn’t play that well. So that grounded the guys a little bit. It’s a very competitive group. It’s a very proud group."

Quinnipiac, undefeated in ECAC play (14-0-2), has games remaining against St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Yale, Brown, Harvard, and Dartmouth. In some ways, the stretch run this season will feel familiar – again, for a team that has won a postseason series every year since joining the league. Perhaps the only difference will be the higher expectations – and the larger watchful audience.

In the end, though, at least Pecknold won't be sleeping in three-hour increments, struggling to propel a fledgling program.

Instead, with a dream season ongoing and the NCAA tournament on the horizon, he can sleep well knowing he's the head coach of the hottest team in college hockey.

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©2014 Avash Kalra. All Rights Reserved.