NCAA Hockey 101: Jack Eichel and the Hobey Baker Watch; Quinnipiac, Yale battle

This weekend was the second-to-last in a number of conferences' regular seasons, and Hobey Baker Award lobbying is really starting to pick up. The only campaign that matters, though, got under way in earnest, as Boston University unveiled its “I Like Eich” buttons and campaign, which are fun and nice.

For his part, Jack Eichel didn't have a great weekend, though, as Notre Dame took three of four crucial league points from BU, and he could only muster an assist in each game, and BU scored just four goals total. But even still, Eichel is up to 50 points in 30 games, as an underage freshman, and has a six-point lead on the player who's second in the nation in points. That player — Evan Rodrigues — is his linemate. The other guy in the mix, one point back of those two, is Union's Daniel Ciampini, who has been very good for a middling team.

Eichel is also tops in the nation in points per game, but his grip there isn't as firm. His 1.67 per game  exceeds that of Harvard's Jimmy Vesey (1.52) and Michigan's Zach Hyman (1.54).

Meanwhile, as part of that BU/Notre Dame series, Jeff Jackson took the opportunity to note that defenseman Robbie Russo ought to be a Hobey candidate as well, and watching him play you can see why: He's close to a point a game from the blue line, and very staunch defensively for a team that needed a lot of help in that area this year. But for me there's only one defenseman worth talking about in this area, and that's Minnesota's Mike Reilly. No one else is as good as he is and it's really that simple. Not that I'd give him the award or anything, but he'll be in the top 10 no problem (so too, I bet, will Denver's Joey LaLeggia).

In net I'll listen to arguments for plenty of guys. St. Lawrence's Kyle Hayton is on .940 in 31 games behind a poor team. Alex Lyon's in the same area. Michigan Tech's Jamie Phillips, Providence's Jon Gillies, North Dakota's Zane McIntyre, they're all in the same ballpark a little ways back from the leaders, and all getting heavy usage. Any one of those guys are worthy candidates to finish in the top 10 in voting this year, and probably three of them will actually do it (I'd put my money on Hayton, McIntyre, and Gillies).

But the guy with the buttons is the guy that's unequivocally the best player in the country, and I know Hyman kisses puppies and gets straight A's and loves his mom and all that stuff. Maybe BU should have Eichel rather conspicuously walk old ladies across Comm. Ave. over the next few weeks if he wants to keep up in that regard.

Other than the standard “He's such a nice guy though!!!!!” argument there's not one reasonable argument in favor of anyone but Jack Eichel walking away with this award laughing. He's the best player in the country, who has almost singlehandedly elevated his team after a disastrous 2013-14 season.

People don't like Eichel because he gets a lot of attention, in the same way that Johnny Gaudreau got a lot of attention last year. People didn't like it then, either. But guess what: Gaudreau's 2013-14 was the best season by literally anyone in college hockey since Paul Kariya put up 100 points for Maine in 1992-93. Eichel's 2014-15 is the best season by a freshman since Paul Kariya put up 100 points for Maine in 1992-93. And people still talk about Paul friggin' Kariya all the time in college hockey.

There's a reason for that: It's because he's an all-time great. So was Gaudreau. So is Eichel.

If you don't like it, I'm sure there's a barely-point-a-game, 24-year-old two-way forward taking two classes as a senior at St. Cloud you can waste your stupid vote on.

BATTLE IN THE ECAC

The thing with the Pairwise rankings, which determines NCAA tournament seeding, is that they seem to weirdly undervalue teams for a big chunk of the season. So it wasn't that surprising to see Quinnipiac enter the Christmas break seeded 18th in the nation despite the fact that they were 10-5-1. That was good for third among ECAC teams, thanks to Harvard's unsustainably hot start and a solid showing from Yale.

But since then Quinnipiac has become one of the hottest teams in the nation at 10-3-3 over the last 16, and on Saturday night clinched at least a share of the ECAC regular-season title. They're 15-3-2 in-league right now, and what's really hurt their chances of making the tournament is a 5-6-1 non-conference record and played (mostly) good teams. As far as the Pairwise goes, they've only improved to 11th despite being one of six teams with 20 wins on the season. That is, however, the best Pairwise standing of any team in the conference, though Yale, Harvard, and St. Lawrence are all in the Nos. 15-19 range.

The problem for the Bobcats is that they've been excellent for years but really never get mentioned in the same breath as some of the other major programs across the country. Which, for me, doesn't make a lot of sense. If you want to talk about teams that play the game in a manner that thoroughly ensures success year after year, I don't think there are too many teams in their stratosphere. Their possession share over the last two seasons is a ludicrous 58.9 percent, this despite the fact that they've led the vast majority of games they've played. That makes up for the fact that Michael Gartieg and Co. aren't very good goaltenders (.912 at evens, which isn't good enough), and the team's shooting is only a little above average (8.1 percent).

Now, the ECAC has a number of good possession teams, like Union, Colgate, and Yale in addition to QU. It also has even more rather poor ones. But even against an admittedly difficult schedule at times, the Bobcats have only been held to less than 50 percent possession in any single game against league opponents 12 times out of 45 over the last two seasons. They cleared 60 percent in that same stretch 16 times.

So yeah, no surprise at all that the Q keeps winning. This is the second regular-season title in three years for the club, and the time they didn't win it they finished third with a .636 league winning percentage (no was was touching Union's .841). They have a tough test to close out the regular season, with games at Harvard — poor, spiraling Harvard — and Dartmouth. Meanwhile, St. Lawrence, the only other team that could conceivably tie Quinnipiac for the Cleary Cup, has at least one extremely winnable game at RPI (the other is at Union, which ain't easy).

But the thing with SLU is that they are one of those bad possession teams — CF% well below 50 percent — and have a PDO of around 104. Which is to say that if you think SLU is good, you are flatly wrong. They have been lucky, and that's about it. Yale, which can't catch the top team but could theoretically pull even with SLU if the Saints are swept next weekend, is at least a good possession team in its own right, and carrying a very stingy defense thanks to Alex Lyon's .946 even-strength save percentage, which looks at least somewhat sustainable at this point because apart from a brutal stretch around the middle of last year, that's roughly his career average.

So the question, then, becomes whether the Q can actually position itself to compete with Yale in particular. The Bulldogs have outpossessed them in both their meetings this year, but both games ended in a 2-2 tie (the most recent being on Friday) because Gartieg actually decided to show up for them, which isn't a guarantee most nights. These are for my money the two best teams in the conference by a decent shout, and they play each other very tough indeed. Which makes sense, because they're regional rivals; a handful of well-hit golf balls get you from one team's rink to the other as the crow flies.

However, there might be cause for concern going forward: Quinnipiac has been dominant at evens for much of the last two years, but the last month or so has seen them become well, rather ordinary. I don't think anyone would argue that this year's team is better than last year's in terms of talent, and that's reflected in the fact that both their possession numbers and even shooting capability are a little diminished over that time. Gartieg has actually been better this season than last, but their shooting efficiency is in decline; they're also giving up 4.6 more shot attempts at five-on-five per game this year.

I mean, for the year QU is still above 56 percent, which is crazy, but they've obviously been trending down for some time now. And if there is indeed a playoff clash with Yale is in the offing, then there's not much to choose between them, because Yale's moving in the same direction with lesser possession numbers.

If it comes down to Gartieg versus Lyon, I think I'd probably go with Lyon despite Yale's relatively poor shooting talent (6.8 percent this season at evens). But these are two very similar teams and the fact that the Eli haven't beaten Quinnipiac in the last six tries (0-3-3) strikes me as an aberration. I'm not sure how much longer that success can go on.

This is still largely a boring conference, because the chance that someone outside the greater New Haven area wins it is not too significant. But there's more intrigue at the top than at first glance.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

  1. North Dakota (swept Western Michigan)

  2. Miami (split with Duluth)

  3. Minnesota State (idle)

  4. BU (took one point from Notre Dame, beat Northeastern)

  5. Minnesota Duluth (split with Miami)

  6. Boston College (tied Lowell)

  7. Minnesota (split with Penn State)

  8. Denver (swept Colorado College)

  9. Michigan (split with Ohio State)

  10. Quinnipiac (tied both Yale and Brown)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here

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