Hobey Top 10 Won’t Dump Chase

In life, as in hockey, the value of timing can never be underestimated.

For example: this week’s Hobey Watch Podcast with Ed Trefzger and Jim Connelly features a guest appearance by RPI head coach Seth Appert, the same week that the Engineers’ Saturday afternoon tilt against Cornell is picked up by the NHL Network. All told, it seemed like a good time for me to take a closer look at RPI senior Chase Polacek.

I’ve had Polacek on my list for Hobey contenders all season long, starting in October when I made my pre-season list. Of course, since he was a Hobey finalist last season, Polacek seemed like a natural, even though repeat Hobey finalists have been insanely rare in the time I’ve been following the race (I want to say there haven’t been any, but I’m not absolutely certain). In any event, this is what I wrote about Polacek in September:

Polacek was the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year last season, and luckily for the Engineers, the nation’s sixth leading scorer turned down any opportunity to turn pro. Unfortunately for the Engineers, that made him the exception rather than the rule among RPI’s top stars. It’ll be interesting to see how the absence of early signees Jerry D’Amigo and Brandon Pirri affect Polacek. When a team loses major weapons, the ones who are left will command more attention, so RPI will need to make up for the lost productivity relatively quickly. Still, when you scored 50 points a year ago and you stay in school, you get consideration for the Hobey coming into the season.

When I revisited the pre-season list last month, this is what I had to say:

Polacek was the nation’s No. 6 scorer last season, and made the laudable decision to return for his senior year. It was uncertain how the early departures of Jerry D’Amigo and Brandon Pirri would affect Polacek. As it turns out, Polacek’s points-per-game average (1.39) is higher than it was at the end of last season (1.33), although his goal-scoring has dropped. He’s 15th in the nation in PPG right now, and I think that if RPI continues to play well and make a run at returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995, Polacek’s stock will rise. He remains a player well worth keeping an eye on.

Polacek has seen his stock rise since I wrote that, as Polacek is sixth in the nation in points per game as of this writing. So, having kept an eye on Polacek in this afternoon’s 3-2 overtime loss to Cornell, here’s what I think.

Obviously, the first thing that comes out is that Polacek scored his 18th goal of the season this afternoon, and even though RPI was on the power play when he scored it was hard not to be impressed by the way he cut his way through traffic, skated in on net and put the puck past Andy Iles (the RPI fans broke out in a chant of “Hobey Baker” shortly thereafter).

Of course, so much is made of offensive numbers, but the goal Polacek scored – which leaves him 15th in the country in goals per game (.60) – was just one part of his game that impressed me. I liked the work he did on the power play in general, and also liked what I saw of his contributions to the RPI penalty kill (No. 12 in the country at 85.3 percent). I also saw Polacek take two key faceoffs in the waning minutes of regulation, one in the offensive zone during an RPI power play, and one in the defensive zone at the start of a Cornell power play with 3:30 left. He won them both. So, what we have here is a player who’s one of the top scorers in the nation, the national leader in game-winning goals (eight), plays on the power play and penalty kill, takes key faceoffs at crucial times (and wins them!) and wears a letter as assistant captain. That sounds like a Hobey Baker candidate to me.

Then, there’s the fact that Polacek stayed in school when he had the opportunity to leave, helping to keep the Engineers on the rise, as they have been since Seth Appert came to town. That’s one more factor that clearly counts for something, as the last three Hobey winners – Kevin Porter, Matt Gilroy and Blake Geoffrion – were all seniors with professional opportunities.

At this point, I think RPI would have to go seriously south for there to be a chance of Polacek not making it to the Finalist stage of Hobey voting, and while a pair of overtime losses this weekend leave RPI on the wrong side of a tie for 15th in the Pairwise (before most of the Saturday schedule, mind you) a Rensselaer tournament berth  - especially if accompanied by ECAC hardware – makes Polacek a serious contender for the Hat Trick and beyond.

One final note on the Engineer front: Bryce Merriam played in goal for the Engineers in place of the injured Allen York, who has also garnered Hobey consideration. York is third in the nation in goals-against average and sixth in save percentage, and if RPI strengthens its NCAA bid over the remaining time between now and the Hobey voting, he’s a potential finalist. My gut feeling, though, is that if RPI only gets one finalist in, then it’s Polacek.