January 27, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hobey Hopefuls

by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer

On Saturday April 7, NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey will crown its national champion at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. The ultimate moment in college hockey's 2011-12 season will be preceded by the awarding of the 32nd Hobey Baker Memorial trophy on April 6.

Last year in St. Paul, Minn., Miami's Andy Miele picked up the award, with Boston College's Cam Atkinson and North Dakota's Matt Frattin as the runners-up.

As this season approaches that moment, College Hockey News will bring you this feature every other week until voting closes. This is the first entry. CHN Staff Writers Avash Kalra, Scott McLaughlin, Adam Wodon, Dan Myers and I collaborated on the list, coming down to a list of five players currently in the running with five more who could make some noise with strong finishes to the season.

It will change as we move forward of course. Each edition will feature our list, the reasons for their selection and what those players and their teams have ahead of them in the two following weeks.

Here's our first list:

1. Jack Connolly, Senior, Center, Minnesota-Duluth

The case for:

Leading the defending national champion through its first 24 games of the season, Connolly is currently the only player in the country with 40 points (15 goals and 25 assists). The senior returned to Duluth following an all-American season and hasn't dropped off in the slightest. Aside from his scoring totals, Connolly is second in the nation in plus/minus, trailing only teammate J.T Brown, at a plus-19. Perhaps the most impressive note on Connolly, though, is that he has recorded at least one point in all but one game this season — the second of the year against Notre Dame. He has at least two points in 10 games.

What lies ahead:

Duluth hosts Michigan Tech this weekend for a pair at Amsoil Arena. In 14 career games against the Huskies, Connolly has scored nine goals and assisted on eight others. Next weekend, the Bulldogs hit the road for a pair with Alaska-Anchorage. Ten games against the Sea Wolves in his three-plus seasons have yielded four goals and eight assists.

2. Justin Schultz, Junior, Defenseman, Wisconsin

The case for:

Justin Schultz' status as the best defenseman in college hockey is no longer questioned, and the three-zone standout has led the Badgers to a 5-1-0 start to the second half. His 37 points — 12 goals and 25 assists — are fifth in the country and tops among defensemen in Division I by a pretty sizable margin; Minnesota's Nate Schmidt is second with 26. On the back end, Schultz has been equally dominant for the Badgers, rating a plus-15. Last weekend, Wisconsin swept UAA in Madison, and Schultz recorded one goal, four assists and rated a plus-7 in the two games.

What lies ahead:

A pair at red hot North Dakota and home against St. Cloud State await Schultz and the Badgers over the next two weeks. Earlier this season Schultz scored a goal and assisted on two others in a sweep of UND, but his greatest test will be shutting down its top line looking to maintain the level of play that has propelled UND back into position to make a run at championships within the WCHA and potentially the nation.

3. Austin Smith, Senior, Right Wing, Colgate

The case for:

Playing in the ECAC always means a player has to do a little more to receive consideration for national awards. Not since Harvard's Lane MacDonald in 1989 has a player from the ECAC won the award. Smith's sensational start to the season put him in the conversation to start, and the national leader in goals (24) has maintained his contributions throughout the year. Smith has six goals in his last seven games. It hasn't been enough for the Raiders, though, as the club is winless in those seven games to start the second half.

What lies ahead

The Raiders have a critical home-and-home pair with Cornell starting Friday night in Ithaca, N.Y. Currently battling for playoff positioning, the wins are more important than a Hobey race for Smith. Still, maintaining the pace he's managed to start the second half would go a long way toward helping both causes. The following weekend, Smith faces Union's Troy Grosenick — the national leader in goals-against average (1.64) and save percentage (.937) — before heading to Troy, N.Y., for a battle with last-place Rensselaer.

4. Nick Bjugstad, Sophomore, Center, Minnesota

The case for:

The only sophomore to make the cut in our first edition, the 6-foot-5 Bjugstad is second only to Smith with 20 goals on the season, playing a tougher schedule. After scoring eight as a freshman, Bjugstad's strong sophomore campaign has been among the biggest reasons for the Golden Gophers' resurgence in 2011-12. After slowing down late in the first half, Bjugstad has picked it up to start the stretch run. In his last five games, he's scored four goals, including a game-tying goal with 1:17 left in regulation last Friday against Colorado College.

What lies ahead:

The Golden Gophers are currently in first place in the WCHA, but have played two more games than second-place UMD. Also, the strong PairWise ranking that once seemed to guarantee Minnesota an at-large bid at the very least has fallen slightly. As such, UM's next four games against St. Cloud State and Denver are more important and present a strong stage for Bjugstad to move up on this list and become a legitimate contender for the award. Earlier this season, Bjugstad scored four goals in a weekend split with SCSU, including his first career hat trick.

5. Spencer Abbott, Senior, Left Wing, Maine

The case for:

As Maine's top line has gone, the Black Bears have gone. Beyond that, as Spencer Abbott goes, so goes that top line. Playing the right wing alongside center Brian Flynn and left wing Joey Diamond, Abbott has become the most dominant player in Hockey East in the last two-and-a-half months. In Maine's last 13 games, Abbott has scored seven goals and assisted on 19 others, good for 26 points — an average of two points per game. During that stretch, Maine in 9-2-2, asserting itself as a contender for home ice and a potential NCAA Tournament team. They have Abbott to thank for that. For the season, he leads the conference in scoring with 38 points on 12 goals and 26 assists. It's been suggested that goals win the Hobey, not assists. Miele proved that wrong to an extent last season with his 47 assists largely responsible for his award. However, he also scored 24 times on the season. It's unlikely Abbott will get to either of those totals this year.

What lies ahead:

Friday night, Maine begins a crucial two-game series with Boston University at Agganis Arena. Two wins over BU would shoot Maine up both the PairWise and Hockey East standings. And it needs a strong weekend from Abbott to do that. After the massive weekend with BU, Abbott has a chance to pad his stats with Alabama-Huntsville heading to Orono for a pair with the Black Bears. Despite a strong showing a UMD last week, the Chargers have allowed more than four goals per game this season.

The rest:

Troy Grosenick, Sophomore, Goaltender, Union
Drew Shore, Senior, Center, Denver
Joe Cannata, Senior, Goaltender, Merrimack
Shawn Hunwick, Senior, Goaltender, Michigan
T.J. Tynan, Sophomore, Center, Notre Dame

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