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Hockey East back in the Hobey Baker mix in a big way

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As college hockey fans waited for last week’s announcement of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which is handed out to the top men’s college hockey player in the country, the question was not whether a Hockey East player would be included. Rather, it was how many.

The answer turned out to be two, with Boston College sophomore Cutter Gauthier and Boston University freshman Macklin Celebrini joined by Jackson Blake, who signed a three-year, entry level deal Wednesday with the Carolina Hurricanes after completing his sophomore season at North Dakota.

In 2023, all three finalists hailed from the Big Ten, with Michigan’s Adam Fantilli claiming the prize over Minnesota’s of Logan Cooley and Matthew Knies. The idea that there could be three finalists from Hockey East in 2024 was not far-fetched, as BU sophomore Lane Hutson — arguably the best defenseman in the country — and BC freshman Will Smith were top-10 finalists.

Smith, a native of Lexington and taken No. 4 in the 2023 NHL Draft by the Sharks, perhaps had the best case after leading the NCAA in points with 69 (23 goals, 46 assists). He received an unlikely endorsement as well. While asking BC coach Greg Brown about Smith,’s Jessi Pierce prefaced her question by saying that Jack Eichel, who won the Hobey in 2015 as a freshman at BU, told her he voted for Smith.

“That’s really nice of Jack,” said Brown. “For Will to lead the country in scoring as a freshman is extremely impressive. I guess he’s got a lot of abilities, but his awareness of space and how to create space for his teammates is something that’s really special for a young kid.

“He has a great ability to pass the puck exactly how hard it needs to be passed. If he needs a rocket to put through a small area, he does. Or if he needs to lay it out to an area in front of people, he does that extremely well, too.”

Skating on a prolific line with classmates Gabe Perreault and Ryan Leonard may have left some voters reluctant to single out Smith. Perreault entered Thursday night’s action averaging 1.68 points per game, third behind Smith’s 1.77 and Celebrini’s 1.73. Leonard was just one of three players to eclipse 30 goals, with his 31 trailing only Gauthier (37) and Celebrini (32).

The winner of the 2024 Hobey Baker Award will be announced Friday, with the ceremony broadcast on NHL Network at 6 p.m.

Seconds for all

For the first time, all four Frozen Four head coaches are behind the bench of their alma maters.

Michigan coach Brandon Naurato played four seasons for the Wolverines, reaching the Frozen Four as a junior in 2008 and finishing his career at Ann Arbor with 32 goals and 32 assists.

David Carle was recruited by Denver, but was unable to suit up for the Pioneers after he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy during medical testing ahead of the 2008 NHL Draft. Denver honored his scholarship by naming him a student assistant, jump-starting his coaching career.

BU coach Jay Pandolfo reached the Frozen Four in each of his four seasons as a Terriers’ player, winning a national title as a junior in 1995. He has led BU to the national semifinals in each of his two seasons as head coach.

“Just grateful to be back here as a coach,” said Pandolfo. “Grateful for the opportunity that I had when I played at Boston University, playing for Jack Parker, playing with a lot of very good players, a lot of competitive players, a lot of high-character players. We had some great teams.

“In saying that, when you’re here, it’s very difficult to win. This is the sixth time, but the five times I went before, I only won one time. It’s very hard to win this tournament. The margin for error is very slim.”

Brown was the captain of the 1990 team that reached the national semifinals. It was the last time both BC and BU reached the Frozen Four in the same season.

“It’s a much bigger event now than it was then,” said Brown. “We would sneak in, there wasn’t hardly any press at all, none of the social media stuff. So it’s an event now. The red carpet stuff, the attention from the NHL, from everybody. It’s just evolved into a big event now and we’re excited that the guys get to experience it.”

Follow Andrew Mahoney @GlobeMahoney.

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