Closing in on 16…and on 10

We’re heading into the homestretch.

One week from today,  we’ll know who the 10 finalists are for the 2011 Hobey Baker Award, as they’ll be announced on Thursday night. One week from Sunday, we’ll know who the 16 teams are in the NCAA tournament.  And, while the two are not perfectly correlated, there are connections that are worth examining.

For starters, a couple of players who are very much in the running to be Hobey finalists will be sitting and watching: RPI’s Chase Polacek and Niagara’s Paul Zanette. The Engineers lost their ECAC Hockey first round series to Colgate, putting a major dent in their NCAA tournament hopes, while the Purple Eagles saw their season end at the hands of Canisius in an Atlantic Hockey first-round game.

Provided the right combination of upsets doesn’t throw RPI into the NCAA tournament – and I’m not the right person to tell you what those are –  Polacek ends his season with 21 goals and 27 assists in 37 games, an average of 1.30 PPG. That’s a hair off from his 1.33 PPG average of a season ago, but he’s still very much in the running to be a Hobey finalist. At the moment, he’s 14th in the country, as compared to sixth at the end of last season, but I think that he’ll also get credit for being a senior who stayed when he had a chance to leave. There are a lot of good candidates, so I would call him a lock as a finalist, but I’d call it probable.

Zanette, meanwhile, has emerged as a clear front-runner in Atlantic Hockey, sharing the national lead in goals with North Dakota’s Matt Frattin and ranking second in the nation in points per game behind Miami’s Andy Miele. He was also a nominee for the Hockey Humanitarian (though not a finalist) for his work with the Purple Eagles’ “Niagara Fights Diabetes” effort, which is a nice addition to his résumé. The fact that Niagara is out of the running in Atlantic Hockey could hurt – and RIT goalie Shane Madolora could wind up being the conference Player of the Year, which does muddy thigns a bit – but I’d be reasonably surprised to see Zanette out of the top 10.

Meanwhile, a couple of teams are closing in on NCAA tournament berths a long time in coming, and that is likely to mean Hobey finalist berths for the players most responsible.

I caught some flak in the comments on my last blog post for leaving Union’s Keith Kinkaid out of my list of goalies contending for Hobey finalist spots, which was  an oversight on my part. However, our good friend Ken Schott did a fine job of talking up Kinkaid on this week’s Hobey Watch podcast, and I encourage you to give it a listen. I personally tend to value save percentage (in which Kinkaid is 13th in the nation) over goals-against average (where he leads the country), but the big thing, to borrow from Charlie Sheen, is “winning.” Union’s doing more of it than they ever have – and that includes the D-III era – and Kinkaid is a huge part of that. Expect him to be rewarded accordingly as Union closes in on its first Division I NCAA Tournament berth.

Merrimack, meanwhile, has been to the tournament before, but it’s been more than 20 years. Barring the wrong combination of tournament results, the Warriors’ drought could conceivably continue, but it’s probable that we’ll see Mark Dennehy’s team in the field of 16 a week from Sunday. With that in mind, it’s fairly certain that we’ll see sophomore forward Stephane Da Costa as one of the top 10. I had a chance to watch Da Costa when the Warriors played at Army earlier in the year, and I was very impressed with his command of the game, and the passes he makes. At the time, he was right around a point per game, but Dennehy told me after the game that he considered Da Costa to be the best player in the country. I don’t know about that, but Da Costa’s had 22 points in 12 games since that conversation, and is currently sixth in the country in points per game. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll be in.

I’ll have more to say as we get closer to Thursday’s announcement, but for now, Kinkaid and Da Costa are two players to watch this weekend, as they lead their teams toward uncharted territory.