TMQ: Talking about weekend upsets affecting the PairWise, players under consideration for the Hobey Baker Award

LOWELL, MA - DECEMBER 7: Jack Dugan #12 of the Providence College Friars. NCAA men's hockey at the Tsongas Center between the UMass-Lowell River Hawks and the Providence College Friars on December 7, 2019 in Lowell, Massachusetts. The Friars won 4-1. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/USCHO) (Rich Gagnon)
Providence sophomore Jack Dugan leads the country in scoring with 50 points (nine goals, 41 assists) in 32 games for the Friars this season (photo: Rich Gagnon).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Paula: Jimmy, there are two things I’d like to begin with this week.

The first is regular-season conference championships. Congratulations to American International for their second consecutive regular-season Atlantic Hockey championship. Given how fiercely competitive that league has become, that’s no easy feat. And congratulations to Minnesota State for securing at least a part of the WCHA regular-season title. Six points ahead of Bemidji State, the Mavericks and Beavers close the season against each other next weekend.

North Dakota failed to make the most of an opportunity against St. Cloud State, taking just one point in that series while Minnesota Duluth split with Western Michigan. Then there’s Penn State, a team that has struggled in the second half and finished its regular season with five points against Minnesota. Now the Nittany Lions wait out the last week while Ohio State – a team that swept Michigan State to stay in the mix – and Minnesota each have opportunities to overtake Penn State next weekend.

And then there’s Cornell, extending its winning streak to seven games in impressive fashion, with shutout road wins over Yale and Brown. Is the Big Red the best team in the country right now? Many poll voters thought so.

The second thing I’d like your take on is the PairWise. After reading the Bracketology column you and Jayson Moy published last week, I was eager to see how quite a few series would play out over the weekend.

As often is the case in February, there were surprises.

Jim: It certainly was an interesting weekend.

There were probably more upsets this past weekend than the previous three combined.

I do want to look at and acknowledge AIC. The Yellow Jackets clinched their second straight Atlantic Hockey title, but the story behind it is even more impressive.

As AIC took the ice on Friday, Jan. 17, it was 11 points out of first place chasing Sacred Heart. It seemed almost inconceivable the Yellow Jackets could come back, but a win that night started an 11-game winning streak and allowed the team to clinch the title with Saturday’s win.

Sometimes, I think that Atlantic Hockey stories get under-reported. This is one that I have followed and am happy to give a hat tip to Eric Lang and his staff. This is such an extraordinary comeback.

Paula: Lang definitely deserves to be acknowledged for what he’s done at AIC in four short seasons.

In 2014-15, AIC had four Atlantic Hockey wins. The year prior to Lang’s hire in 2015-16, the Yellow Jackets finished in the AHA basement with just six conference wins. They increased that by one in their first season under Lang, and then up to 11 in 2017-18 and a climb out of the basement to an eighth-place finish.

Now, AIC has back-to-back AHA regular-season titles.

One of the most popular clichés in sports now is “building the culture” that a specific team desires, but I can’t imagine a more apt use of the phrase than with AIC. Lang deserves consideration for this year’s Spencer Penrose Award. And, yes, I know it’s a little too early to be talking about season honors.

Jim: Speaking of end-of-season honors, I find looking at national statistics that we have something very interesting in the nation points race in relation to the Hobey Baker Award.

Since the first weekend, people have had an eye on Jack Dugan of Providence, a talented playmaker who to this day leads the nation in points and assists. He and Tyce Thompson, a great goal scorer for the Friars, seemed like Hobey candidates.

But their team, Providence, has struggled mightily of late getting swept last weekend by lame-duck Merrimack, which can’t even qualify for the Hockey East playoffs.

It makes me wonder. As great of a season that Dugan is having, might he have trouble getting Hobey consideration if his team is a quick out (or worse, misses) the Hockey East playoffs?

Paula: A great question, and I’m not sure that there’s a single, neat answer to that.

Looking back at the last decade of Hobey Baker winners, only two have come from teams that finished lower than second place in their conferences at the end of the regular season.

Harvard finished in third place at the end of 2105-16, when Jimmy Vesey won the Hobey. The Crimson advanced to the title game of the ECAC playoffs, lost to Quinnipiac, and then bowed out in the first game of the NCAA Northeast Regional to Boston College.

Miami’s Andy Miele also played for a third-place team when he won in 2011, but the RedHawks won the CCHA playoff championship that year. Their season ended against New Hampshire in the first game of that season’s Northeast Regional.

Northern Michigan sophomore Griffin Loughran has 22 goals in 33 games – up from seven in 35 last year – but he’s as unlikely to receive consideration for the league in which plays as much as the fact that Northern is in third place in the WCHA and 24th in the PWR. The Wildcats are having more than just a respectable season, but you and I have discussed perception of league strength before and it works against him.

Arizona State’s Johnny Walker deserves consideration. His 60 goals in 100 career games is especially impressive for a forward on a team without a league. He’s a pure goal scorer, a rare(ish) creature these days in college hockey.

Dugan is certainly a solid choice for Hobey – an easy choice, in fact – but whether his fate is tied to the success of his team is really dependent on the prevailing winds of the Hobey voters and the current mood of college hockey. Playing in one of the two toughest leagues in the conference should count for something, regardless of where Providence finishes.

Jim: I will say, one player who I saw in person this past weekend and was very impressed with was John Leonard of Massachusetts.

He can dominate a game and seemingly appears from nowhere to be in the exact right spot to score goals. Leonard scored four this weekend against a stingy UMass Lowell defense and now has 13 of his 24 goals since we arrived in 2020. Impressively, despite 24 goals in 30 games, only five have come on the power play. In other words, he isn’t dependent on having the extra man to score his goals.

A month ago, Leonard was nowhere near my radar, whereas players like Dugan and Thompson, were right at the top. That has suddenly flipped and a lot of it has to do with the Friars lack of recent success.

I will leave you with one player who I really think will need a good campaign if he is to win the Hobey, but his stats say he is deserved: Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay.

This weekend, he posted back-to-back shutouts, numbers nine and 10 on the season, and he still has hockey to play. His GAA is a stingy 1.28 and his save percentage is .942 with 27 wins to date.

When I discuss goaltenders, I always pull out the stats from Ryan Miller’s miraculous season for Michigan State from 2000-01 when he was the last netminder to win the Hobey. His numbers were similar. He posted 31 wins total, a .950 save percentage and a 1.32 GAA. He also posted 10 shutouts. McKay still has time left to fortify his resume and when the season ends, there is a strong chance his numbers will equal or surpass Miller’s.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the year a goaltender can win another Hobey.