In regionals, Hobey finalists get one last chance to impress

The NCAA tournament is almost upon us, and with it the last chance for Hobey Baker Award finalists to state their case for college hockey’s top individual honor.

Of course, three of those finalists are not players I had predicted being part of the top 10, and I’ll address that briefly here.

First up is Austin Czarnik from Miami. I knew there would be a finalist from the CCHA, but I thought that it would be Brady Hjelle from Ohio State. My mistake here was valuing individual statistical performance over team success. Miami was on track for a top regional seed when the voting took place, and I probably should have expected that team success to be rewarded, even if there was no one with superlative statistics from the RedHawks (at least, not on a national level). Czarnik, as the team’s best player — and the CCHA player of the year — was the right man to receive that reward.

Then there’s Carsen Chubak from Niagara. I’ve been very suspicious of the Purple Eagles, based in large part on their weak out-of-conference record (1-3-3), but the fact of the matter is that Chubak paced the team to a regular season title and an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. In hindsight, it was probably foolish of me to expect Atlantic Hockey to go without a finalist, and while Brett Gensler made noise earlier in the year, Chubak was the obvious pick from the AHA.

Finally, there’s Kyle Flanagan from St. Lawrence. Flanagan has a great case as the nation’s No. 3 scorer and a senior starring for his hometown team, but I thought the ECAC Hockey quarterfinal loss at Yale would have been the end of him, particularly with players like Erik Haula of Minnesota and Steven Whitney of Boston College in the mix. Still, it’s hard to say he isn’t a worthy finalist, and congratulations to him in that regard.

Now, with that out of the way, we look ahead to this weekend’s regionals, which begin Friday afternoon with the West and Northeast regionals. Seven of the 10 finalists are in action this weekend, and in my opinion, the Hobey (and spots in the Hobey Hat Trick) still remain to be decided. Here’s how I see the weekend ahead.

Northeast Regional

There should be some great games here, of course, but there are no Hobey finalists playing in Manchester, so it doesn’t factor into our analysis.

West Regional

As wrong as I got it with Chubak, there’s actually a path to the Hobey Hat Trick for him here. If Chubak can backstop Niagara past North Dakota and its pair of Hobey finalists, then top Minnesota for a trip to the Frozen Four (assuming the Gophers get past Yale), then it will lend a greater legitimacy to what the Purple Eagles have done within Atlantic Hockey all season long and could get Chubak a spot in the Hat Trick.

That having been said, however, I don’t see any kind of on-ice feat that Chubak could accomplish that would make him the first goalie in over a decade to win the Hobey.

The more interesting play, however, is for North Dakota’s Danny Kristo and Corban Knight. We know that they’re in the conversation now since they are finalists, and as it stands, I think that one of the two is likely to be among the top three players in the final voting. My gut sense is that it’s Kristo since he’s the primary goal-scorer of the two (and the Hobey tends to reward goal-scorers more than it does setup men), but the fact that Knight’s misdemeanor charge from the preseason party incident was dropped while Kristo’s was not leaves me a little uncertain. In any event, I’m reasonably sure that one of the two will be in the Hobey Hat Trick, and a Frozen Four trip for UND will lock it down, possibly for both (depending on other results).

Midwest Regional

Two Hobey finalists are active here: Miami’s Czarnik and St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc. My instinct about Czarnik is that while he’s a huge contributor to Miami’s success with his team bests of 24 assists, 38 points and a plus-19 rating, he’s not going to get much national recognition as the nation’s No. 37 scorer.

Could a huge weekend and a RedHawks return to the Frozen Four propel him into the Hat Trick? Possibly, but I really don’t see it.

That brings us to LeBlanc. The fact that most of his 50 points are assists is not a knock on him as a player at all. If it were, he wouldn’t be the WCHA player of the year. However, forwards who win the Hobey have primarily been goal-scorers, which is why I don’t see LeBlanc winning the award.

However, he can certainly propel himself into the Hat Trick with a good weekend in Toledo. In fact, I wouldn’t even say he needs to win. Given the Huskies’ track record of first-round ousters, even one win in which LeBlanc plays a huge part, combined with his strong regular season and his off-ice achievements (WCHA scholar-athlete of the year), could put him in the top three.

East Regional

Perhaps more than anywhere else, this is where the action is. Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau has been the front-runner for the Hobey for most of the season, and he enters the NCAA tournament as the nation’s points-per-game leader.

If the Eagles can advance to the Frozen Four with wins over Union and Quinnipiac — a draw that has many BC fans licking their lips — and Gaudreau is a significant contributor, I think he locks up the Hobey in Providence.

If BC falls, then I think Gaudreau’s “brand” will be slightly damaged from having gone 0-fer in the trophy department (I’m not counting the Beanpot or the World Juniors here), and that could open the door for someone else, most likely one of the North Dakota players. Regardless, I think he’s already in the Hat Trick.

The other Hobey finalist in this region is Quinnipiac’s Eric Hartzell, who also saw his campaign damaged last weekend with a loss to Brown in the ECAC Hockey semifinals. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Hartzell will not win the Hobey after his stumbles in the conference tournament, but that doesn’t mean that the Bobcats goaltender can’t grab a spot in the Hobey Hat Trick. I think it would take a trip to the Frozen Four, but it’s there for him.

The guys who aren’t playing

Flanagan, Greg Carey and Ryan Walters are sitting and watching here, but I’m not entirely convinced that one of them doesn’t get a trip to Pittsburgh. In my mind right now, I see one spot for Gaudreau, one spot for a North Dakota player and one spot for someone else. Depending on what happens this weekend, that someone could be Hartzell, LeBlanc, Chubak or the other North Dakota forward … or none of the above.

Suppose BC tops Quinnipiac to go to the Frozen Four, St. Cloud goes out in the first round again and North Dakota cleans up on Chubak and Niagara but loses to Minnesota in the regional final. Who gets the third spot then? Is it Carey, the big-time goal scorer who still leads the nation in that category? Is it Walters, the 50-point scorer from one of the nation’s two toughest conferences? I don’t think Flanagan is in the mix, in all honesty, but Carey and Walters are still very much eligible for a Hat Trick spot.

What do you think? Who do you see going to Pittsburgh as part of the Hobey Hat Trick? Leave your thoughts below, and we’ll see how it unfolds this weekend.