Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jack Connolly Marches Toward History

Jack Connolly's season goes beyond his Hobey Baker candidacy, his point streak, his exemplary work as UMD's captain, or his march up UMD's all-time scoring list.

The UMD senior center had four points last weekend -- including three on Saturday -- in a non-conference sweep of Alabama-Huntsville. That lifted Connolly into sole possession of 12th place on UMD's all-time list with 177 points. It also ran his point scoring streak to 22 straight, tying a school single-season record.

Connolly is on the verge of being a three-time All American -- which would be a UMD first. He's also on pace to top 200 career points, assuming UMD plays in at least three postseason games (a virtual certainty between the WCHA and NCAA playoffs). To put that in perspective, TJ Hensick was the last college player to hit 200 career points. And that was a while ago. As Chris Dilks noted this week on Western College Hockey, it's not like there's a long line of guys behind Connolly who have a chance at the number.

Only six players in UMD's history have 200 career points. The last one to hit the milestone in a UMD uniform was Derek Plante in 1993 (219 points). Dan Lempe (222), Matt Christiansen (219), Bill Watson (210), Gregg Moore (206), and Scott Carlston (203) are the others.

In case you're wondering, it's not unrealistic for Connolly to reach 210 points if UMD plays more than one game at the Final Five and four games in the NCAA Tournament. That would tie Connolly for fourth all-time with Watson.

Reality suggests that Connolly's feats will be exceptionally difficult to duplicate. Most players who are talented enough to rack up this many points would be serious flight risks before they've played four years of college hockey. Any chance we have of seeing 200-point players in the future probably lie in undersized, undrafted players like Connolly.

Over the rest of the season, there will be a lot of chatter -- both in this space and in other places -- about Connolly's candidacy for the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey's top player. Unlike some other awards, there are components to the award criteria that have little to do with hockey. However, you're not winning the Hobey if you roll up 15 points in 39 games on a team that goes 12-23-4, no matter what you do with your time away from the rink.

Connolly figures to be a strong possibility for the final ten that the Hobey folks will announce in mid-March, and there's a chance he'll make the Hobey Hat Trick, which is announced shortly after that. He leads the nation in points and points per game, he doesn't "fatten up" on power plays, he doesn't lack in goal-scoring ability (on pace to shatter his previous career high of 18 goals), and he plays in all key situations for UMD, including late in games where UMD is defending a lead. He's developed into a key penalty-killer over his career.

"Obviously, he's a heck of a player on a very good and a very deep team," Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson says. "So sneaky, so smart. You have to be aware of when he's on the ice."

Pearson would know. For 40 minutes of each game of the teams' series in Houghton in December, Connolly was shut down. In the third period of each game, the Huskies couldn't stop him. Connolly had two goals and an assist in the third period of a 5-3 win Friday, then scored the game-winner in a 5-3 win Saturday.

"They have other parts, but he stirs the drink," Pearson said. "I thought we did an excellent job on him. You might be able to shut him down for 58 minutes, but those two minutes you don't, look out."

UMD coach Scott Sandelin thought Connolly's line -- he centers Mike Seidel and Joe Basaraba -- was out of synch and off its game in Friday's 2-1 win over Alabama-Huntsville. Last year, Connolly and his star linemates Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine rarely put together a stretch of two sub-par games in a row.

Connolly wasn't going to let it happen this year, either.

"I thought he was outstanding from the drop of the puck," Sandelin said. "I thought he was at another level. It's hard to keep them down. Even those guys not having their best night is still good, but they were very good on Saturday."

UMD's balance is certainly a key to the team's success, but Connolly's ability to dominate in the clutch is what could take this group to another level. Focus too much on Connolly, and you risk getting torched by Travis Oleksuk and JT Brown. And even if you can contain both top lines, you still have to find a way to keep the third and fourth lines -- more than capable of contributing -- off the scoreboard.

Connolly is -- as Pearson says -- the straw stirring the drink. He's the most valuable player you'll find on any top team in college hockey, and he might be the best you'll see anywhere.

The Hobey debate is always an interesting one, because you get into a world where guys play different positions, different roles, and put up different statistics while playing on different teams in different leagues. Being on that committee is a hell of a responsibility, because it's your job to make sense if it all, even though there's a good chance you haven't seen all the candidates play in person.

When the dust clears and there are three guys sitting in the front row at the Hobey ceremony Apr. 6 in Tampa, you'll have a hard time convincing me Jack Connolly won't be one of them.

The only question that carries real intrigue, besides the obvious, is this:

Will he still have his Zac Brown-like playoff beard when he's sitting there?

It's a question we'll have a hard time answering until that day comes.

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