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February 10, 2012 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hobey Hopefuls, V.2

by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer

Two weeks have passed since our first attempt at judging the 10 candidates best suited for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award. In those 14 days, we saw one of the favorites score four goals, another masterfully led a comeback to avoid a damaging upset, and a few others emerged as players quickly trending toward the top of our list.

Still, with three or four weeks remaining in the regular season depending on the conference, no clear-cut favorite exists — much the same with the national championship picture. At the moment, some have done enough to seal themselves as viable candidates and favorites for a spot on the ice during Friday at the Frozen Four. With strong performances in the coming weeks, the distance may start to come between the candidates.

In Volume II, we have a new No. 1; the top five candidates have remained the same, with the order entirely different. Once again, Avash Kalra, Dan Myers, Scott McLaughlin, Adam Wodon and I each submitted a list of 10 players from around the country.

Here's what we came up with the second time around:

1. Austin Smith, Senior, Right Wing, Colgate (Last rank: 3)

The case for:

ECAC players have managed some pretty strong seasons in recent memory. Still, producing a viable candidate has eluded the conference for some time. The main question being how much would it truly take for a player from the ECAC to land in the top three or even take the award home. Austin Smith may be on the road to giving us that answer. Since appearing in the No. 3 spot two weeks ago, Smith has scored six more goals, lifting his total to a national best 30 on the season. Factor in 15 assists, and the senior ranks second nationally in points (45) and third in plus/minus at plus-22. His four-goal game against Rensselaer last Saturday was brilliant, but it came against an RPI team ranked 52nd in the Ratings Percentage Index. On the other hand, if it were that easy to do in the ECAC, Smith wouldn't be on pace to equal something not seen in the ECAC since Todd White's 38 goals in 1997. So, once again, we ask, how much will it take for a player from the ECAC to win the award? As of now, we think Smith is on track to answer that question.

What lies ahead:

Smith's Colgate team hosts both Yale and Brown this weekend before heading to St. Lawrence and Clarkson in one week. Not one of those teams is a Team Under Consideration, and Clarkson being No. 38 is the highest RPI team of the bunch. Much like he did over the last two weekends, Smith will simply need to keep up the scoring to remain in this spot two weeks from now. It won't take six goals in four games to maintain his momentum, but he'll need a couple. For Colgate's sake, consecutive solid weekends will help the Raiders lock up a bye in the first round of the ECAC Tournament at the very least. With the regular season finale against first-place Union, a solid few weeks could setup a massive showdown for the league's regular season championship.

2. Jack Connolly, Senior, Center, Minnesota-Duluth (Last rank: 1)

The case for:

In his last four games, Jack Connolly's torrid production calmed a bit, with the senior picking up just two assists — one in each game at Alaska-Anchorage last weekend. The minor cooling off period that will happen to a guy after spending that much time in Houghton, Mich., and Anchorage saw Connolly fall all the way to third in the country in scoring, which frankly says more about how fantastic he was before this stretch. At the time of our first list, Connolly led the nation with 40 points. After truly fantastic weekends from a few of his competitors, he's still within striking distance of the national lead in scoring with 15 goals and 27 assists for 42 points — five points back of Maine's Spencer Abbott.

What lies ahead:

A big weekend starting Friday night with North Dakota in town could do wonders for Connolly's candidacy. The Fighting Sioux are on their customary late season run through the WCHA, having won three in a row and five of seven. Piecing together a big weekend certainly won't come easy for Connolly, but his team — and his Hobey campaign — could use the lift from its best player after going 1-2-1 in its last four games. A trip to Minnesota State follows the pair with the Sioux. In two games against the Mavericks earlier this year, Connolly scored a goal and assisted on three others.

3. Justin Schultz, Junior, Defenseman, Wisconsin (Last rank: 2)

The case for:

Justin Schultz leads the nation in points for a defenseman on a young Wisconsin team trying to close an up-and-down season well. The Badgers lost four consecutive games over the last two weekends, and Schultz was hardly at his best. In two losses to North Dakota, he was pointless and rated even for the weekend. A week later, he picked up an assist, but rated a minus-4 in two losses to St. Cloud State — not the production a struggling UW team needs from its No. 1 defenseman. Still, Schultz is the best defenseman in the country and closing the regular season with a few strong performances will keep him among the likely finalists for the Hobey.

What lies ahead:

The Badgers are off this weekend, which gives them a chance to regroup after a rough end to January and start to February. Life in the WCHA rarely comes with too long of a break, though, and Denver heads to Madison for a pair with the Badgers following their bye week. Schultz' candidacy as a defenseman will be tested by the dynamic Denver offense.

4. Spencer Abbott, Senior, Left Wing, Maine (Last rank: 5)

The case for:

Picking up a pair of points in the first game of weekend sweep of Boston University at Agganis Arena was the strong performance in a big game Abbott needed. While his goal in the win was the empty-netter that sealed it, his assist came on the goal that won it. A week later, he ran with the chance he received to do some serious stat padding with seven points in two games against Alabama-Huntsville. While a few points against the Chargers is hardly something to thrust someone into the spotlight, Abbott's performance in the first game was pretty special. The Black Bears spotted UAH a 3-0 lead heading into the third period before fighting back to tie the game, winning it in overtime. Abbott's goal with 46 seconds remaining in regulation tied the game for Maine. A night later, the winger was masterful, as the Black Bears rolled the Chargers, 5-0. With nine points in his last four games, Abbott is now the national leader in scoring with 15-32—47.

What lies ahead:

The Black Bears hit the road this weekend for a Friday night game at Providence and Saturday evening with UMass Lowell. If Abbott's performance in the Black Bears' sweep of BU two weeks ago is any indication, the crucial pair with the Friars and River Hawks will bring out his best performances. The matchup with UML is especially important for Maine in conference play and the PairWise. With UML in second place in Hockey Easy (one point short of BU with a game in heand) and tied for second in the PWR, wins over the River Hawks would be big for Maine. A few points against them wouldn't hurt Abbott either.

5. Nick Bjugstad, Sophomore, Center, Minnesota (Last rank: 4)

The case for:

Nick Bjugstad picked up a pair of goals in Minnesota's last four games, lifting his season total to 21 with 12 assists added to the mix. The sophomore's breakout campaign has lifted Minnesota to first place in the WCHA and an almost-certain at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Currently getting a lift — from us anyway — for his assist total and plus-16 rating, Bjugstad will need to keep up the goal scoring to move up in the next edition or by the time voting ends.

What lies ahead:

The Golden Gophers head to Denver this weekend for their only two regular season meetings with the Pioneers. DU trails Minnesota by six points in the race for the MacNaughton Cup, which they'll look to pare down starting Friday night. Wins for the Gophers, though, would mean a lot for their position within the conference and national picture. Contributions from Bjugstad will sustain Minnesota in this quest, and help the sophomore catch the eye of those looking at other candidates. The pair with Bemidji State that follows comes in Minneapolis, but the Beavers will look to knock off their rivals. Just another opportunity for the underclassman Bjugstad to show he can perform when his club needs it.

6. Drew Shore, Senior, Center, Denver
7. Shawn Hunwick, Senior, Goaltender, Michigan
8. Troy Grosenick, Sophomore, Goaltender, Union
9. Doug Carr, Sophomore, Goaltender, UMass Lowell
10 Brock Nelson, Sophomore, Left Wing, North Dakota

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