stuhackel
Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

Goaltender Carey Price is surely a longshot, but it's hard to imagine where the offensively challenged Montreal Canadiens would be without him. (Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

After our usual Tuesday night skate, my teammates and I repaired to the Grill where the TV had highlights of all the NHL action. I noticed the Canadiens had won 3-1 in Atlanta and Carey Price had made 40 saves. Maybe it was the unusually large amount of lime that Eddie O. the bartender put in my club soda, but it crossed my mind that Carey Price certainly could be a legitimate candidate for the Hart Trophy. And then I started to think about who else might be considered. Compared to some of them, Price -- who has almost single-handedly saved Montreal from a disastrous season -- might be a longshot.

With the regular season entering its final stages -- no team has more than 20 games left, the trade deadline has passed and playoff-race ferocity saturates the competition -- the time is right to examine the NHLers who have been so crucial that the their teams might well have been a level or two below, if not complete train wrecks, without them.

In the first half, the consensus was that Sidney Crosby was the league's MVP and would likely skate away with the Hart in June. In fact, during the Original Six era, the NHL conducted two voting periods with first-half winners of the major awards selected and announced. They also received small bonuses, although only the year-end winners got the trophies and a small bonus. Now, there's no such thing, of course.

Crosby's unfortunate injury took him out of Pittsburgh's lineup and out of contention for MVP honors. About half the remaining Penguins got hurt, too, and amazingly this team has pulled together and remained an Eastern Conference power. If the Penguins not collapsing without Crosby puts some doubt in your mind about how valuable he was, you weren't watching them much in the first half. It's a tribute to coach Dan Bylsma that they haven't gone into free fall with all the injuries they've endured (we'll leave the discussion about the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year for another day).

So who else is in the discussion for the Hart? One guy is Jonathan Toews. It hasn't been a great season for the Blackhawks. Coming off their first Stanley Cup since 1961 and having to shed some important pieces of that team due to the salary cap, some drop-off was expected. It's taken them a while to play consistent hockey, but they've finally started and the Hawks' "Captain Serious" has led the turnaround both on the ice and in the dressing room. With inconsistent results piling up, Toews apparently unloaded on his teammates after they fell behind 2-0 in St. Louis on Feb. 21. (Toews would only say that he “vented a little frustration.") They stormed back to take the game, 5-3, and have now rattled off five consecutive victories, going  through February by grabbing 18 of a possible 26 points, and climbing in the choked Western Conference to seventh, only two points out of fourth. Chicago had been as low as 11th and four points south of the playoff cutline.

Toews had 21 points in those 13 games (six goals, three of which were game-winners, and 15 assists) and was a plus-13 as he was chosen the league's top star of the month. Eight of those games were multi-point matches for Toews, and his performance on Monday in Minnesota was typical of the way he can dominate a game. With the contest scoreless early in the second period, he set up Patrick Sharp for the game's first goal with a pass from behind the net:

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Watch the play from the very start. Toews battles in the corner and then bumps in front of the net with the Wild's Clayton Stoner before slipping behind it to grab Duncan Keith's rim pass and make a quick fake of a wrap-around that draws the attention of Stoner, Greg Zanon and a very good defensive center in John Madden so that Sharp can move in for Toews' pass.

Later in the second period, after Stoner made a bad read at the offensive blue line and gotten caught, Sharp found Patrick Kane on a stretch pass off the far boards and Toews finished the 2-on-1 to give the Hawks a 3-0 lead.

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That goal would be the game-winner, but watch Toews pressuring Minnesota's Martin Havlat behind his own net at the start of the clip and then take off out of the zone as soon as Kane rams the puck to the other side for Sharp to pick up and feed back to Kane. That's using the whole ice, and it's also a fine transition from defense to offense that catches the Wild out of position.

But with Minnesota drawing to 3-2 in the third and on the power play, at the end of a frenzied sequence Toews sets up Marian Hossa on another 2-on-1 for an insurance tally:

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Watch Toews first win the puck in the corner, fight to keep it out in front of the net, and then jump on the loose disc, dodge Pierre-Marc Bouchard's last gasp effort to halt him, break in and feed Hossa perfectly. Toews covered a lot of ground and his effort lifted Chicago to victory.At the end of that game, his 61 points had moved him into the league's top 10 in scoring (he's now 12th), and his plus-20 put him in the top 20.

"Watching Toews play every night lets you appreciate his greatness," blogs Tim Sassone of the Arlington Daily Herald. He scores goals, he sets up goals, he wins faceoffs, he leads by example on the ice and in the dressing room and is as strong on the puck as any player in the league. I would be shocked if there was another player in the NHL who wins more individual battles than Toews."

Of course, if the Hawks go cold again, that would likely remove Toews from consideration. Voters don't look favorably on Hart Trophy candidates if their teams miss the playoffs.

Another potential Hart candidate has to be Boston goalie Tim Thomas. His play all season has been nothing short of remarkable, especially considering that he'll turn 37 when the playoffs start and many in Bruins Nation were fretting at the season's outset that the $5 million annual contract he has until 2012-13 would be a salary cap killer.

Instead, Thomas shook off both the hip injury that slowed him last year and any lingering doubts by putting together a superb season so far. He is at or near the top of every statistical category. His GAA is 1.97, hard to do in the post-lockout era, and his save percentage is .939 (and it's been as high as .945). If that figure holds, it would be the best ever recorded in the NHL since the stat was officially introduced in 1983-84. Dominik Hasek had the previous high of .936 in 1998-99. Goalies don't often win the Hart, and Thomas's workload is lessened by having Tuukka Rask backing him up. He may not reach the 60-game mark. But it's hard to think the B's would have had so strong a season without Thomas's excellence.

How about Steven Stamkos? The game's top goal scorer now has 41 to lead the NHL. The Lightning's rise to the top of the Southeast Division would be unthinkable without his dynamic offensive contributions. He's on pace for a 54-goal, 102-point season although a hot streak could get him closer to 60.

Stamkos's teammate Marty St. Louis, who is third and right behind him in the scoring race, might also merit consideration. His leadership is a critical factor in Tampa Bay's success. It's always a tough choice for voters when two candidates come from the same team and these two could siphon votes from each other.

Speaking of multiple candidates coming from the same team, the Canucks have three legitimate Hart Trophy names. Last year's winner, Henrik Sedin, leads the NHL in assists, and his brother Daniel leads it in scoring. Ryan Kesler, who has been mentioned regularly this season for his continued excellent all-around play would also be a bona fide winner, but it's possible that the three Canucks will also cause voters to divide their votes.

Early in the season, hockey observers were amazed that 40-year-old Nick Lidstrom was being considered for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman. Now there's buzz about him in the Hart race as well. And why not? When the Wings went though one of the worst injury plagues seen in the NHL in recent years, it was Lidstrom who became their dependable force. He's just behind Phoenix's Keith Yandle as the league's top scoring blueliner, he's still the guy who makes the Wings power play go, and he's averaging over 23:30 of ice time per game, which for his age is rather remarkable. On Monday night, with the Wings ahead of Los Angeles 7-1, Coach Mike Babcock reduced Lidstrom's ice time to save him for games Wednesday in Anaheim and Thursday in San Jose. In his absence, the Kings came back with three straight goals. Henrik Zetterberg, whose generally sterling play also helped keep the Wings flying, especially after Pavel Datsyuk was injured, also merits consideration.

Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller could have been part of this discussion, too. He was having an outstanding season, but has missed all but one game since Feb. 2 when he went out of the lineup with symptoms of fatigue that grew into vertigo. There's no timetable for his return.

As for Price, no one faced more pressure coming into the season. He'd been roundly booed by a large segment of his home fans last season, lost his job to playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, and then was handed the starting job again when Halak was traded during the summer to St. Louis. Unlike Thomas, Price will probably play over 70 games. He leads all goalies in minutes played, he's second in wins and shots-faced, and third in shutouts -- all for a team that has scored fewer goals than the other 15 currently in playoff spots and is ranked 23rd in goals per game. With so little "run support," he has little margin for error.  His performance this season isn't unlike that of Jose Theodore, who won the Hart in 2001-02 while backstopping an offensively challenged team. Theodore was the last goalie to win the Hart, and a Canadien. His career didn't exactly take off from there, but Price looks to be the real thing.

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