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Chris Peters | | February 1, 2017

Hobey Baker race heating up; Badgers on the rise?

He wasn’t technically supposed to be there, but former Boston College standout Cam Atkinson ended up being the most productive player at the 2017 NHL All-Star Game. Invited as an injury replacement for Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Atkinson starred for the Metropolitan Division team as they won the 3-on-3 tournament in Los Angeles Sunday.

Due to the NHL’s new all-star format with 11-player teams representing the four divisions instead of the traditional conference alignment, Atkinson just missed making the cut on his own. He is currently leading the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets with 24 goals and 46 points in 48 games, good for 11th overall in the league. There is no question he is having an all-star caliber season and deservedly got the nod when Malkin couldn’t go.

Regardless of how he made the team, Atkinson turned heads in Los Angeles. The 27-year-old found himself on the same team as two of the biggest names in the game today – Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Yet he ended up stealing the show from the big stars with three goals and two assists to lead all players with five points over the two games he played in.

While All-Star Game performances are nice, the best part about Atkinson’s showing is that it helped shine a light on what he has been doing all season.

The Blue Jackets have been one of the biggest stories in the NHL, but much of the attention has been paid to the team’s talented young blue line and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Meanwhile, Atkinson has been the team’s most consistent goal scorer, leading his next closest teammate by six goals. He is on pace to shatter his previous career-high of 53 points as he is on pace for 79 this year. He should also top 30 goals for the first time in the NHL.

Anyone that saw Atkinson tearing up the ice in the NCAA ranks from 2008 to 2011 could see the potential. He put up 61 goals and 105 points over his last two seasons with the Eagles. However, questions about his size may have limited his ceiling in some people’s eyes.

However, players like Atkinson are continuing to break through despite any notion that their size is a hindrance. At 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, Atkinson more than holds his own and has reached the 40-point plateau in each of his last four seasons in the NHL. Better yet, the former sixth-round pick just seems to keep getting better and better as his career progresses.

The Blue Jackets have a chance to build something special in Columbus. Many of their best players are young, like rookie defenseman and former Michigan standout Zach Werenski and Swedish forward Alexander Wennberg. Atkinson has just one year remaining on his contract after 2016-17, but will be eligible for an extension this summer. He has obviously made a case to be part of where this team is going next, or possibly even lead the way.

Men’s Hockey Notebook

Hobey Baker race red hot: The online fan voting for Hobey Baker Award candidates is underway. While most fans have their favorites, getting down to actually selecting the Hobey at the end of the season could prove especially difficult.

  Union College senior Mike Vecchione is one of the highest-scoring forwards in the nation — 46 points.
Six players have already reached 40 points this season, with Union College senior Mike Vecchione leading the way with 46 points. While the forwards continue lighting up the scoreboards, don’t forget about the goaltenders as there are several primary starters who sport save percentages over the .930 mark. Canisius College’s Charles Williams leads in that category with an absurd .945 save percentage in 23 appearances for the Golden Griffins.

With such a crowded field of netminders, it may be difficult for any one of them to stand out above the highly-productive upperclassmen across the country this year.

Vecchione probably is the front-runner at this stage. Producing at the highest level of his career by far, the 23-year-old senior turned down opportunities to go pro last offseason as a free agent. Instead, he stayed and has the Dutchmen looking like a tournament team while he keeps putting up points. Considering his production dipped substantially just a season ago, Vecchione’s resurgence should keep him in the conversation all year long, assuming he keeps up this incredible level of production.

There’s a pretty sizable crowd hot on Vecchione’s heels, though, with New Hampshire’s Tyler Kelleher and Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese looking to be among the most formidable challengers to this point. There is still a lot of hockey left to be played, but there is no doubt that this Hobey race is going to be a good one.

More on Charles Williams: A cursory mention of Williams isn’t enough because what he has been doing this season for Canisius has been nothing short of incredible. As already noted, he leads the nation with a .945 save percentage in 24 appearances, but on top of that, he has led the Golden Griffins ascent to first place in Atlantic Hockey.

This is a team that had been picked to finish ninth in the conference coming into the season. In fairness to the coaches who voted on that poll, it would have been hard to see Williams’ success coming. A graduate transfer from Ferris State, William had just 20 collegiate appearances over the previous four years before moving to Canisius.

With that one year of eligibility to use, the 24-year-old is 14-6-3 on the year and unbeaten in his last eight starts. That run includes six starts in just 11 days, with Williams allowing a mere eight goals over that span. The team’s recent success has given Canisius a two-point lead over Air Force for the top spot in the conference.

It is often hard for players from Atlantic Hockey to win major national awards, but even if this season ends without hardware, Williams deserves some significant attention for what he’s been doing.

Here come the Badgers?

  Wisconsin is riding a three-game winning streak, which includes victories over Minnesota and OSU.
Tony Granato’s first season behind the bench at Wisconsin has had its ups and downs, but things are trending in a positive direction. The club is riding a three-game winning streak, which includes key victories over primary rival Minnesota and a sweep of ranked Ohio State. The Badgers have won six of their last eight games and are now tied with the Golden Gophers atop the Big Ten standings. UW is also sitting at 18th in the Pairwise, making them look like they’re at least a bubble team for the tournament.

No one is going to declare the rebuild over in Madison, but after winning just eight games all of last season, there is at least something to cheer about again. Keep an eye on this team as the season progresses. They may not end up making the tournament, but they sure could be disruptive. Men's Rankings | NCAA Hockey: Top Five Plays

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