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College Hockey:
Hey Abbott! Maine forward enters picture as team’s fortunes improve

As I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s always nice to see a lively debate in the comments section after a blog post. It makes me feel like I’m doing my job, and having seen it happen after last week’s blog post, I’m very pleased. It also doesn’t hurt that the comments have helped focus my writing for this week’s entry, which should start with Spencer Abbott of Maine.

You may have noticed that I haven’t had that much to say about Abbott so far this season. It didn’t help that when I started this season’s Hobey Watch, Abbott and the Black Bears were on the outside looking into the NCAA tournament picture. Since then, of course, the Black Bears have come on strong, finished fourth in Hockey East, and host Merrimack this weekend in a vital quarterfinal series that may be the key to returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Meanwhile, Abbott is the national scoring leader with 56 points (19-37–56), and is certainly a strong candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.

One important thing that’s happened is that Abbott has established himself as the Hobey candidate on the Black Bears, which is important when you play on a line that includes two other forwards among the nation’s top 15 scorers in Brian Flynn (11th, 17-28–45) and Joey Diamond (12th, 22-19–41). Of course, it stands to reason that any high-scoring forward will have an impact on his linemates’ statistics, and it rarely hurts to have great linemates in the Hobey race. Consider, for example, that 2005 Hobey winner Marty Sertich had one of his linemates, Brett Sterling, in the Hobey Hat Trick with him. On the other hand, the 2010 Miami team that advanced to the Frozen Four had four forwards with 40 points or more: Jarod Palmer, Andy Miele, Carter Camper and Tommy Wingels, all of whom have played in the NHL this season. However, the RedHawks player honored with a spot in the Hobey top 10 was goalie Cody Reichard, who split time in net with Connor Knapp. Not being able to distinguish yourself from other talented teammates can be a liability in the Hobey race (although it helps to be surrounded by that kind of talent if you’re chasing an NCAA title, which as always is a far more important concern).

And, for what it’s worth, while Jack Connolly may not play on a line with Travis Oleksuk and J.T. Brown at Minnesota-Duluth, either Brown or Oleksuk has figured in the scoring for 31 of his 55 points. I wouldn’t rush to give him credit for his success despite not playing on a line with Duluth’s other high-scoring forwards. He may or may not have a lead on Abbott in the Hobey race, but that’s not the reason.

In reality, I don’t know why I haven’t given Abbott as much virtual “ink” as Connolly in writing the blog this season. Maybe I’ve been self-conscious about East Coast bias. Maybe I got too caught up in how cool it would be for Connolly to become the fifth Hobey winner from Minnesota-Duluth at the Frozen Four in Tampa, where UMD’s first Hobey Winner is the assistant general manager of the local NHL team (particularly if the Bulldogs are in the Frozen Four). But one thing I was thinking about this morning does seem like a possible reason I haven’t been taking Abbott as seriously as I should:

Since 2000, only three Hobey winners have not played in the Frozen Four that season.

Those players, for the record, are Peter Sejna of Colorado College in 2003, Matt Carle of Denver in 2006 and Andy Miele of Miami last year. It would have been pretty hard to deny Sejna after he put up a point total (82, on 36 goals and 46 assists) that hasn’t even been sniffed since. Carle, as we’ve discussed in the past, had the benefit of winning NCAA championships in the previous two seasons, which I feel kept him from being docked for Denver’s lack of tournament success (or participation) that year. Plus, he had an outstanding season for the Pioneers that year, possibly the best season performance by a defenseman in recent memory. And as for Andy Miele, I really don’t want to revisit last season’s Hobey debate, because it was nasty and ugly and pretty much the antithesis of what I tend to enjoy about college hockey and college hockey fans. So, let’s just acknowledge that it happened, keep in mind that Miele was the leading scorer in the nation by a wide margin with the most points in a season since Sejna’s 82, and move on, OK?

Coming back to this year, the national scoring race is tight between Abbott, Colgate’s Austin Smith and Connolly. However, in terms of team success, Minnesota-Duluth has been established as a top national contender for much of the season. The Black Bears, on the other hand, have had to claw their way up (pun intended), and have three other teams ahead of them in Hockey East: Boston College, Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston University. That likely will help Abbott in the evaluation, as it shows the strength of the opposition that he’s playing against.

Not that I agree with the characterization of ECAC Hockey as any kind of pushover conference, by the way. Obviously, the conference has struggled to produce a Frozen Four team since Cornell went in 2003, but ECAC teams have been a tough out. Duluth’s run to the 2011 NCAA championship went through two ECAC Hockey schools, and the UMD people I spoke to after those games weren’t buying into any of the “EZAC” talk. As for commenter “bosch,” who pointed out that seven ECAC Hockey teams failed to reach 10 conference wins, compared to just two in the WCHA, keep in mind that ECAC Hockey has a 22-game conference schedule, compared to 28 in the WCHA. Nine of the 12 ECAC teams had higher conference win percentages than Wisconsin, the 10th-place team in the WCHA. I will not argue that ECAC Hockey has the top-to-bottom strength of Hockey East or the WCHA, but I wouldn’t discount it nearly as much as some observers seem to when evaluating Smith. But we discussed Smith last week.

Coming back to Abbott (and Connolly), we all know that anything can happen at tournament time — and really, what hasn’t happened in recent years? — but I think it’s fair to say that there would be a lot more surprised observers this spring if Maine advanced to Tampa than if Duluth were to advance to the Frozen Four.

Bear in mind, I’m not saying that either team will or won’t advance … I’ll save that for the USCHO staff picks contest at tournament time (which I’ve won a couple of times). However, that’s definitely something to keep an eye on as things move forward. In the meantime, Spencer Abbott is very much in the Hobey race, and pretty likely for the Hobey Hat Trick. As with all the candidates in the Hobey race, the coming weeks will tell the story.

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