February 28, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hobey Hopefuls, V.3

by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer

As the end of the regular season approaches — faster for some than others — the 2012 Hobey Baker race has produced some frontrunners. It has not, however, provided an overwhelming favorite for the award.

Last time around, I wondered if any of these players, each dominant in some manner, would do enough to convince the naysayers or some of those wavering on the fence. While no one player did enough to cement his position, some of the lesser candidates did fall back, allowing a trio to become the likely Hobey Hat Trick to grace the ice at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on April 6.

In this, our third installment of the Hobey Hopefuls series, Avash Kalra, Scott McLaughlin, Dan Myers, Adam Wodon and I still produced ballots with differing orders and even entirely varied candidate lists. But the top few names were all the same. The top five looks a little different, but it's those top three names that will likely remain in some order for the next month as we inch closer to that crowning moment.

Here's our third list:

1. Austin Smith, Senior, Right Wing, Colgate

The case for:

The sensitivity of Austin Smith's campaign is borderline ridiculous. In his four games since our last ballot and prior to this past weekend, Smith scored three goals and picked up an assist. Because of the goose egg against the Golden Knights, some believe that was enough to strip him of his candidacy. The fact that it was just his 11th game of the year without a goal seems to be lost on all of these people. His 3-1-4 performance in the last two weekends gives him 33 goals, 16 assists and 49 points on the season — not to mention a plus-24 rating. Like we said last week, Smith's candidacy is predicated upon doing enough to overcome the undeniable weakness of his conference in comparison to Hockey East, WCHA and CCHA.

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

The case for:

After a bit of a difficult stretch, Jack Connolly reasserted himself in the Hobey Baker race with a two-goal, three-assist performance against North Dakota two Saturdays ago. The five-point game helped the Bulldogs end a two-game losing streak, and put them in position to build their current three-game point streak. Moreover, it pushed Connolly back into a battle with Smith and Maine's Spencer Abbott for the national points lead. The foil to Smith's big fish case, Connolly is the best player and leader on the defending national champion — a team that some believe can win a second consecutive championship. Fifty-six percent of his 49 points have come against current Teams Under Consideration, compared to less than 31 percent for Smith. However, the strength of schedule between Colgate and UMD is negligible, with the Bulldogs playing the 35th most difficult and Colgate at No. 38. Connolly would obviously take a second national championship over a Hobey Baker award, but some strong play between now and the close of voting could position him to collect both of those distinctions.

What lies ahead:

The MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the WCHA's regular season champion, has eluded the grasp of the current UMD seniors. Clinching it for the Bulldogs would certainly bolster the already strong candidacy of Connolly. UMD will need to take four points from its weekend pair with St. Cloud State, and get some help from Wisconsin, which plays a two with WCHA-leading Minnesota.

3. Spencer Abbott, Senior, Left Wing, Maine

The case for:

With 16 goals and 36 assists coming into last weekend, Spencer Abbott was the national leader in points, but you wouldn't know it listening to most arguments about the Hobey Baker award. The unassuming winger has calmly guided Maine back into a race for a Hockey East regular season championship and an almost certain spot in the NCAA Tournament. Though Maine is just 3-3-0 in its last six games, Abbott maintained his dominance. While it seems like the conversation has been whittled down to either Smith or Connolly, Abbott may very well have a better case than either. He has more points than both of them, while playing a far tougher schedule. Maine has played the 16th hardest slate, compared to UMD's 35 and Colgate's 38.

What lies ahead:

Despite essentially the same — if not a little better — resume than Connolly, Abbott's not getting as much talk. A few good games to close the regular season could certainly change that in a hurry.

4. Justin Schultz, Junior, Defenseman, Wisconsin

The case for:

The argument for Justin Schultz gets more difficult every weekend. Most agree that the junior is one of the premier defensemen in college hockey, but there's little hope for him as a Hobey candidate without some brilliant play down the stretch and into the WCHA Tournament. The Badgers split a pair in Denver last weekend, and Schultz was his typical yeoman self in the series. In the second game, he scored a goal and picked up an assist, lifting his season totals to 13-27-40, brilliant numbers for a defenseman. He had two more this most recent weekend. Regardless, a second consecutive 40-point season and his current plus-12 rating are fantastic accomplishments for Schultz.

What lies ahead:

A strong weekend in Bemidji pushed UW into ninth place, now it finishes with Minnesota. A chance to play spoiler, and a chance for Schultz to get a lot of attention.

5. Shawn Hunwick, Senior, Goaltender, Michigan

The case for:

his is Shawn Hunwick's first appearance in our top five, and the senior's brilliance in the second half is the main reason for his ascent. Michigan is 12-3-1 in the second of the season. Hunwick has as much to do with this as any player in the maize and blue. On the year, he's seventh in the country in goals-against average (2.05) and tied for fifth in save percentage (.932) coming into last weekend, while facing the most difficult schedule in the country with his teammates. There are other goaltenders with some more impressive statistics, but the Wolverines' consistently brutal schedule — both in the CCHA and out of conference — has to level some of these off. Hunwick's entire career has been a matter of proving he can be a Division I goaltender. He nearly won a national championship a season ago, and he may very well get the Wolverines that ring this year.

What lies ahead:

The Wolverines earned a bye in the first round of the CCHA Tournament, but Hobey voters will have an eye on Hunwick, as Michigan begins its race for a Mason Cup in two weeks.

6. Nick Bjugstad, Sophomore, Center, Minnesota

7. Troy Grosenick, Sophomore, Goaltender, Union

8. Reilly Smith, Junior, Left Wing, Miami

9. Doug Carr, Sophomore, Goaltender, UMass Lowell

10. Travis Oleksuk, Senior, Center, Minnesota-Duluth

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