After a slow start, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby could end up as the NHL's 2016 MVP.
Sidney Crosby has twice captured the Hart Trophy.
He might be on the verge of making it three.
Crosby's candidacy for the league's top individual prize gained legitimacy over the weekend as he extended his point streak to 12 games with his third consecutive multi-point effort and moved into third place in the scoring race with 76 points.
Make no mistake: Patrick Kane, the NHL's leading scorer and most consistent offensive threat over the course of the season, is still the favorite to claim the award. If he does, he'll become the first American player to be so honored.
But heading down the home stretch, Kane is no sure thing. In fact, there's a case to be made that he's not even the most valuable player on his team—goaltender Corey Crawford has been championed by more than one Chicago writer as the player who makes the Blackhawks go.
There are no such questions about Crosby's importance to the Penguins. The 28-year-old center got off to the worst start of his career, hampered by the nervous coaching of Mike Johnston and a rotating crew of linemates who reduced his effectiveness in the offensive zone, and Pittsburgh struggled along with him. By the start of December Crosby had just five goals and 15 points with a –10 rating to show for his first 23 games. It was troubling enough that questions were raised about his roster spot on Team Canada for the upcoming World Cup.
But he soothed concerns with improved results in December and January, and then completely put them to bed with his play since the All-Star break. He's been the league's best player by any measure during that stretch, totaling 14 goals and 35 points since Feb. 1. Kane's numbers over that same span: nine goals and 19 points ... solid, but barely half of what Crosby's put on the board. For the season, Sid is outscoring Kane at five-on-five points per 60 minutes, 2.68 to 2.63.
And it's not just on the score sheet where Crosby is making his case. As a center, he has a larger responsibility for supporting the defense than a winger but he handles it so well that he's picking up steam as a viable Selke Trophy candidate—an award for which Kane won't earn consideration. Crosby consistently faces the opposition's top line and he often does it from his own zone. He starts just 52.7% of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone, tied for 133rd among the league's forwards. Kane has a much easier time of things, starting 67.4% of the time in the attacking zone. He's tied for sixth-most among all players.
As Crosby has found his game, so have the Penguins. Pittsburgh is 16-7-1 since Feb. 1, including the current 5-0-0 run since losing Evgeni Malkin to injury. The Pens have rocketed from fourth in the Metropolitan Division and the second wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference to second place in the division. It's not inconceivable that they could finish the season with the second-best record in the East.
If that happens, and if Chicago continues to flounder in third place in the Central, it'll be hard to ignore Crosby's impact. In fact, it could come down not to the definition of what makes a player the most valuable, but when a player is the most valuable.
Kane's been a consistent threat, but his best play came earlier this season. Crosby, on the other hand, is delivering the goods at crunch time. That's not just better for the Pens as they cope with Malkin's loss, but it's more likely to make an impression on award voters, a group that's been swayed by strong finishes in the past.
Ultimately, the Hart remains Kane's to lose. But with three weeks to go, Crosby has a chance to turn this race into a photo finish.