NCAA Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.
Well, there's only a few weeks left before the NCAA tournament starts, so you know what that means: more talk about who deserves the Hobey Baker award.
Unlike some years -- when there's a clear choice and everyone else is just hanging around waiting for the season to end so they can give the freakin' award -- the field is wide open this year.
The national leader in points isn't in the top 25 in goals (this matters somehow), the best defenseman's points total isn't so overwhelming that he's the clear choice, and the top goalie's stats aren't that much better than the, say, third-best.
So obviously the big question is: who's going to win it this year?
Barring any miraculous stretch-run performances, here's who I think has the inside track with three weeks of games to go.
5. Stephane Da Costa (Merrimack), freshman forward
The argument for: He is one of the best point-producers in the nation (third in points per game at 1.45), leads his team in points by a mile, has won the Hockey East Rookie of the Month award every month this season and can literally change a game on any shift he damn well pleases. (Full disclosure: I'm a Da Costa fanboy from Day 1)
The argument against: He's a freshman and he plays for Merrimack. They don't give the Hobey to freshmen (or really even sophomores and juniors if they can help it) unless they are Paul Kariya(notes); and with all due respect to Da Costa, he ain't Paul Kariya. Also, playing for a team that's unlikely to make the NCAA tournament, or to be one which Hobey voters have seen or even heard of, Da Costa has an outside shot at best.
The argument for: He's a senior which helps more than it ever should, is fourth in the nation in points per game, and tied for the national lead in goals (25). Plus it's fun when the entire country pretends like a player from Atlantic Hockey is going to win a national award
The argument against: He plays for Sacred Heart. End of discussion.
3. Marc Cheverie (Denver), junior goalie
The argument for: He's probably the best goalie in the country and certainly the best player on a team chock full of excellent players. His stats are silly at 1.93/.938. He has earned 27 decisions this year, and only three have been losses (21-3-3).
The argument against: There are three excellent goalies this year, and to give one the award would be an iffy move. What would Miami's Cody Reichard, who wouldn't get consideration just because he's played five or six fewer games but whose GAA is nearly half a goal better, think? What about Cornell's Ben Scrivens, whose stats are .06/.007 worse than Cheverie's despite extra games played? Doesn't seem fair.
2. Brendan Smith (Wisconsin), junior defenseman
The argument for: He's the best offensive defenseman in the country. He's 16th nationally in points per game (1.25) and the next-closest is tied for 62nd (1.03). He has more goals than any defenseman with 15, and is tied for the lead in assists with 25. He's a giant reason Wisconsin is No. 3 in the country.
1. Gustav Nyquist (Maine), sophomore forward
The argument for: I pumped his tires a little last week as the best player in Hockey East, so let's just have a quick recap. National leader in points (54). National leader in points per game (1.69). Has scored like a maniac since the start of December with 33 points in 18 games. He will almost certainly be the only player in the country to break 60 points this season. I think that about sums it up.
The argument against: He might not have enough goals (15) to win. I honestly don't know what other argument there could be against him.
1. Would you categorize the Hockey East playoff race (slots 4-9 separated by three points) as "insane" or "really insane?"
Keeping it family friendly, really insane is probably the best description I can use. One of Massachusetts, Merrimack, Northeastern, Vermont, Boston University or UMass Lowell will have their season end this weekend. It's a good group of teams that is fighting to make the league playoffs, get home ice for the first round next weekend, and get in position to make the NCAAs.
Vermont is a team to watch in this group. They've been pretty inconsistent all year, but they are starting to put things together, especially after coach Kevin Sneddon gave forward Justin Milo the heave-ho from the program. They were a Frozen Four team last year, and they had high expectations entering this year. They haven't fulfilled those expectations, but there's still time to make an NCAA run, and their January win over Minnesota Duluth will help them in Pairwise comparisons against WCHA at-large candidates.
2. Who do you like to win each conference championship and why?
Atlantic Hockey: Air Force is always a sentimental favorite for me. Any time you can hear a Frank Serratore at a press conference, you should do what you can to listen in.
CHA: As much as I respect Bemidji's program (more on this in a bit), how can you not pull for Alabama-Huntsville? They're going to be homeless after the season, and they are determined to make it work and continue to field a hockey team. Not only that, but you know this is a team, because they travel all over the country in what is basically a semi morphed into a tour bus-type contraption. The Chargers don't fly anywhere. If they made the NCAAs as the CHA automatic qualifier, fans would have the ultimate Cinderella story to get behind.
CCHA: The Brendan Burke story makes Miami a nice story, but they're also the heavy favorite. Wouldn't it be cool to see Alaska take the whole thing?
ECAC: With all due respect, we've seen Cornell in the dance. Been there. Done that. Let's get RPI back in the NCAAs.
Hockey East: UMass-Lowell came so close last year, only to lose to BU in the title game after a nice run. Get over the hump this year, RiverHawks, and get in the NCAAs for the first time since 1996.
WCHA: For the sake of fairness, I wanted to eliminate UMD from this discussion. Obviously, I want to see the Bulldogs repeat, but I'm terribly biased in this case, and picking them would be just too easy. But they're the best story in the league this year. They earned home ice in the WCHA playoffs for the first time since 2004, but they'll enter the league tournament as an underdog, despite their status as defending champion.
3. How much noise can Bemidji make this year?
Bemidji has a team that can win it all. Dan Bakala is a very good goaltender, guys like Ian Lowe, Jordan George, and Matt Read are fast, dynamic goal-scorers who play a very smart two-way game. They have grit with guys like Chris McKelvie, Tyler Lehrke, and Ben Kinne, but they don't sacrifice a lot of speed -- if any -- when these guys are out there.
With the experience last year, and Tom Serratore behind the bench, I don't doubt Bemidji's national championship credentials for one second. That said it will be interesting to see how the Beavers handle themselves as a favorite, instead of the huge underdog they were last year.
4. Is this the year St. Cloud actually wins a tournament game?
The easy answer is "No." The Huskies are inconsistent of late, not able to string together the quality performances that defined their mid-season winning streak. However, this is a good team. They're defined in many eyes by Garrett Roe and Ryan Lasch, but they go much deeper than that. They get goals from all four lines, and they have more balance than many WCHA teams.
The question comes in the goal. The most success SCSU has had has come from rotating Dan Dunn and Mike Lee. Both have had some stellar performances since the rotation started after Lee's return from the World Juniors, but both have laid eggs, too. When it comes NCAA Tournament time, do the Huskies pick one, or try to rotate their way to Detroit?
5. The big question: Denver or Miami as favorites for the national title?
Both? Both teams have physical players, skill players, good defense, and goaltending. Both have NCAA experience. Both have plenty of leadership on the bench and on the ice. Picking between Denver and Miami is practically impossible, because they are so similar.
This shouldn't be surprising, since Miami's coach, Enrico Blasi, played for Denver's George Gwozdecky at Miami and coached for him at Denver. He has built the kind of team Gwozdecky taught him to build, and it's been highly successful for Blasi.
If you're going to put a gun to my head, I'm giving Denver a slight edge. Marc Cheverie is the nation's best goalie, and there is no more important a position on the ice. Their top line of Rhett Rakhshani, Tyler Ruegsegger, and Joe Colborne are playing at a really high level right now, and I'll venture that sophomore defenseman Patrick Wiercioch is fully healthy after a mid-season knee injury, because he's looked really good to me lately.