ECAC’s hot and hotter, plus the case for Smith for Hobey

Who’s hot today?

No point pretending anymore: this league is flat-out wacky. Cornell’s seven-game unbeaten streak? Gone. Colgate’s six-game winless slide? Gone in the same series; now it’s a two-game winning streak. Harvard kicked its eight-game winless skid, turning it into a four-game unbeaten run.

Yale, ECAC Hockey’s recent standard-bearer, was 5-1-1 and 8-6-2 earlier in the year: the Bulldogs are now 9-10-2. Clarkson – once 6-1-2, then 9-10-5 – is now back on top at 12-11-5 with only one loss in its last five games. Rensselaer, once left for dead by most pundits (I’ll even include myself in that group, to some extent), is 4-2-1 in its last seven.

Here’s the facts: Dartmouth has nine games left. Union, Harvard and Princeton have seven left. Everyone else has eight. The standings by points are the same as by winning percentage now, with the exception of Harvard and Clarkson: the Golden Knights hold the edge on the Crimson at their current respective paces. Nothing has been mathematically determined yet, but the weight is definitely increasing on St. Lawrence and RPI to climb out of the cellar.

It always seems as though there’s a long way to go and a lot of hockey to be played… until there isn’t.

Dutchmen flying

You’ll have to forgive me; there just aren’t that many puns out there that incorporate “Dutch”. Fortunately, I’m not the only one stumped by Union: the Schenectady icers are blasting through all comers lately, winning six of seven (6-1-0) and having lost only once in the Eastern time zone since mid-November (10-1-3; the non-EST losses were at Denver and Colorado College in late-December).

It’s not as though November marked some major turning point, either. Union was 5-3-3 prior, but was also 2-2-0 against the ECAC. The guys in garnet haven’t sniffed .500 since, stacking W’s like flapjacks and turning 2-2-0 into 9-3-3 and sole possession of first place.

A couple of sudden “replacements” have paid massive dividends in the Capital District. Newly minted head coach Rick Bennett has done a masterful job taking over for program-builder Nate Leaman, building what is currently the highest-scoring, defensively stingiest team in the conference. Sophomore Troy Grosenick deserves quite a bit of credit in his own right, stepping into the sizeable boots left behind by New Jersey Devils prospect Keith Kinkaid. Grosenick hasn’t just succeeded in replacing the Dryden winner and All-American Kinkaid; he’s excelled. The Dutchmen’s backstop leads the conference in league goals against average (1.49), save percentage (.946) and winning percentage (.792, 9-2-1).

Union is in the driver’s seat, with two big weekends against the Cornell-Colgate traveling tandem yet to play. I can’t muster another prediction… but the Dutch have done all that could be asked of a team that is seeking its second Cleary Cup in as many years, and its second in program history.

Colgate, Smith make a splash

Quoth the Raiders: We’re not dead yet!

Colgate did all it could to end a dreary January on a positive note, smothering Cornell at Lynah (2-1) and blasting them at Starr (5-3). The wins ended up maintaining the ‘Gate’s hold on third place, once all the results were in, giving it a one-point lead on Harvard (and a game in hand) and a two-point lead on Quinnipiac. It’s never too early to count points in a 22-game regular season… especially when you’ve only earned one in the first three weeks of the month.

Senior forward Austin Smith rolls on, accumulating his 25th and 26th goals of the season on Saturday, and points no. 39, 40 and 41 on the weekend. He’s annihilating the rest of the country in goals-per-game (a perfect 1.00 – 26 goals in 26 games, 0.22 ahead of second place), he has 12 multi-point games (including three three-point nights and one four-point outing), and has only been held off the score sheet twice all year. He’s not even “padding” his total with power-play goals (only four so far)… in fact, he has more shorthanded goals than he does PPG’s (six).

Yeah, that deserves its own paragraph: SIX shorthanded goals! (Most in the country, of course.)

(Brian’s note: rant forthcoming.) Smith is one point shy of the national scoring lead (as calculated by points-per-game) and has to be considered – at this point – a no-brainer for the Hobey Hat Trick. He has pulled far, far away from any of ECAC Hockey’s other potential Hobey candidates, and it makes me sad to consider that where he plays will likely work against him. Who else is in the big-boy pool of Hobey Baker contenders? Players like Spencer Abbott (Maine, leads the nation in scoring). Players like Jack Connolly (Minnesota-Duluth, fourth in scoring, but a title-winner). Players like Rylan Schwartz (Colorado College) and Nick Bjugstad (Minnesota, tied with Schwartz for second nationally in goals-per-game).

These are considered – by many narrow-minded eyes – the “real” contenders, because they play in “championship” conferences: Hockey East and the WCHA, in these cases. They play “real” competition, whereas ECAC Hockey is… well, somehow, not.

And I say, that’s baloney.

Smith scored a goal and an assist at Nebraska-Omaha. He had two goals – one each night – against Miami. He notched assists at Vermont and against Merrimack, and tallied a goal and a helper at Ferris State. (That’s not even including his 5-5–10 line against Atlantic Hockey foes this year.) The only opponents who successfully kept him off the books were Yale and Quinnipiac… both on the road, by the way.

Furthermore, there is more to be said for accumulating points with goals (rather than assists) than meets the eye. Obviously, nobody ever won a game with assists – goals are the only things that count on the big board – but there is also a dirty little secret around college hockey that many assists aren’t worth the pixels they’re published with. Some rinks/teams/scorers have a reputation for handing out assists with unjustifiable exuberance, and there’s no time like a Hobey race to inflate the stats at every possible opportunity. I’m not making any specific accusations, mind you, but I’m not saying such activity would surprise me in the least, either. On Smith’s behalf, it’s almost impossible to “create” a goal to award. Assists however – especially of the secondary variety – are a quite more malleable product.

Last and by no means least, I will ask you one thing: all things being equal, would you rather have a guy who gets a goal a game, or an assist per game? Because here and now, that’s what the contenders are sporting. And only one of them can boast the former. @AustinSmithforHobey