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College Hockey:
Abbott, Connolly and last impressions

So close.

As we sit here now, hours before the 2012 NCAA tournament begins, it’s frustrating to think that the stars aligned to give us such a great setup for a decisive battle in the race for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award, and chances are that we won’t get it.

I’m referring, of course, to the Northeast Regional semifinal game between Minnesota-Duluth and Maine. When I heard that pairing, I started to envision an old-school poster like you might see for a great championship boxing match, with the Bulldogs’ Jack Connolly on one side and Maine’s Spencer Abbott on the other.

Then, of course, I remembered that Abbott is doubtful for the game, as a result of the injury he sustained in the Black Bears’ win over Boston University in the Hockey East semifinal.

Darn it.

It really would have been the perfect way for the Hobey voters to evaluate Connolly and Abbott before the final vote takes place next week. It’s not that goals and assists in that one game would tell the story — or even a victory for the Black Bears or Bulldogs — but it would be a great way to observe, in the same game, what each player means to his team, and let that information inform the final decision.

Of course, we may yet see Abbott in that game. Maine coach Tim Whitehead said that his team is preparing as if Abbott won’t be available, but you never know until game time, especially not when you’re talking about a senior who’s worked his entire career to get into the NCAA tournament. If we don’t, however, his body of work during the season certainly stands up as Hobey-worthy. The question now is whether someone else — like Connolly — will wind up being more Hobey-worthy.

As your Hobey pundit, I really like the Northeast Regional, with each team boasting one of the 10 finalists. Not that Brian Dumoulin of Boston College or Tim Kirby strikes me as a potential Hobey winner at this point in the season, but whoever comes out of that regional semifinal is going to see an awful lot of one of the nation’s best defensemen on Sunday. In any event, we’ve got eight Hobey finalists in action this weekend — four in Worcester, three in Bridgeport, and one in Green Bay — and as the tournament nears, it’s time to see what the possibilities are for each in the Hobey Race. Since we’ve talked so much about Worcester, let’s jump to the regions starting on Friday. We’ll start with Bridgeport, where three of the four teams have a Hobey finalist on the roster.

Troy Grosenick, Union: There’s been almost no serious Hobey buzz surrounding Grosenick, and of course, Hobey isn’t a huge fan of goalies, so my feeling is that the Dutchmen netminder has gone about as far as he’s going to go in the Hobey race. That having been said, a pair of dominant performances to get Union to the Frozen Four would definitely get people talking, and could grab him a spot in the Hobey Hat Trick. Some jaw-dropping saves on Reilly Smith (should Miami get past Massachusetts-Lowell) would make nice highlights.

Reilly Smith, Miami: Here’s the good news for Smith: He has the most goals of any Hobey candidate who’s still playing, and as we all know, Hobey Likes Goals. If he adds a few more this weekend to help put the RedHawks in the Frozen Four, I could definitely see him grabbing a spot in the Hat Trick. My instinct says that’s as far as he goes, though.

Torey Krug, Michigan State: The Spartans are the last team into the tournament, and a surprising run to the Frozen Four might just get Krug into the Hobey Hat Trick. As a high-scoring defenseman and the captain of his team, Krug stands to make a big gain in the Hobey race if his team wins big in Bridgeport. Not a big enough gain to get him a Hobey, I don’t think, but big enough to put him in that top three.

Now, moving onto Green Bay …

Shawn Hunwick, Michigan: I think Hunwick has big-time Hat Trick potential. A couple of strong performances in net and a trip to the Frozen Four for the Wolverines, and Hunwick is very hard not to like. A Cinderella story of a kid bound for Division III who grows into the most important player on a Frozen Four team, all with one of the top five save percentages in the country? That’s hard to resist.

Finally, we make it back to Worcester, and we’ll start with the top seed in the region …

Brian Dumoulin, Boston College: I honestly don’t see Dumoulin getting into the Hobey Hat Trick at this point. That’s not an indictment of his game or his performance, just an observation on how the Hobey voting tends to go. The fact of the matter is that virtually all players who make it to the Hobey Hat Trick have some kind of eye-popping number to hang their hat on, with 2009 Hobey winner Matt Gilroy being the exception that proves the rule. Gilroy is no longer in Tampa, and I don’t think Dumoulin will be, either … as a member of the Hat Trick. Getting there as a participant in the Frozen Four, however, is an entirely different story.

Jack Connolly, Minnesota-Duluth: The Bulldogs have their work cut out for them in Worcester, no two ways about it, but if they can come through and get back to the Frozen Four, the personal reward could be huge for Connolly. Of course, he’s undoubtedly more concerned with how to get past Maine and (most likely) Boston College, but chances are that he’ll have a good scouting report from his big brother (who will probably be all too eager to get advice on Minnesota and North Dakota).

Spencer Abbott, Maine: I am not suggesting in the slightest that Abbott should take an extraordinary risk with his health (i.e., above and beyond those normally associated with hockey due to his injury), but it’s hard not to imagine what kind of effect it would have if Abbott played this weekend, led the Black Bears to the Frozen Four and got himself a personal highlight or two along the way. It’d be very hard not to give him the Hobey if that happened.

Tim Kirby, Air Force: In all likelihood, Kirby’s finalist berth was his win. Anything else in terms of the Hobey race is probably gravy. That having been said, imagine if Air Force can do the unthinkable and knock off the Eagles, then beat the Bulldogs or Black Bears to get to the Frozen Four. Yeah, I don’t think it’ll happen, either, but the Falcons were within an overtime goal of making it happen when Kirby was a freshman. And if they make it to Tampa, what then? You have an outstanding defenseman on a surprise Frozen Four team who just happens to have one hell of an off-ice component to his candidacy. If the Falcons surprise us all this weekend, then prepare to be surprised again.

Now, if you’ve been reading, you’ll notice that I have five different players in the running for a third spot in the Hobey Hat Trick alongside my top two of Spencer Abbott and Jack Connolly. In other words, I see the field as wide open. How wide open? Well …

I feel very, very confident that both Spencer Abbott and Jack Connolly will be in the Hobey Hat Trick, and that one of them will win the award. My gut feeling on Colgate’s Austin Smith is that his lost weekend in Atlantic City cost him a shot at the Hobey, and quite possibly the Hobey Hat Trick. Those goals help a lot, but I feel like Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz could have just as strong a case at this point. Yeah, his team’s not playing, but neither is Smith’s, and he’s a two-time defensive player of the year in what is a much stronger conference from top to bottom than ECAC Hockey who also happens to be the top scoring defenseman in the country.

So, you have these two qualified candidates sitting on the sidelines, AND you have five different candidates who, if the tournament action breaks the right way, could also contend for that third Hat Trick spot: Grosenick, Reilly Smith, Krug, Hunwick and Kirby. At least two of the five will be eliminated (whichever ones don’t win in Bridgeport) and Kirby’s candidacy is a long shot. If Michigan crashes and burns, so does Hunwick. So, come next week, when the Hobey voters discuss their final decision, there will be at least three possibilities (Austin Smith, Justin Schultz and the Bridgeport survivor) and possibly two more (Hunwick, Kirby). How that vote goes will depend on what happens this weekend.

How do you think it’ll all play out? Leave your thoughts below.

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