Power Ranking the Top 10 Candidates for the Hart Trophy
As the season approaches the halfway mark, the NHL is finding that there may be more excitement and tension in a 48-game schedule than there is in a standard 82-game year.
It was obvious from the start that there would be little time for teams and players to find their stride; they had to hit the ice blazing.
As the Chicago Blackhawks rewrite the record book every time they take the ice, they are the dominant story through the first half of the season.
However, they are not the only story. Great tales are being written by the Anaheim Ducks, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins as well.
On the individual front, Sidney Crosby has regained full health and has made a bid to return atop the list of the league's elite players.
Crosby is one of the top contenders for the Hart Trophy that goes to the league's MVP.
Here's our power ranking of the top 10 candidates.
10. Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres have been one of the most disappointing teams in the league. After adding toughness in Steve Ott and John Scott, they were expected to challenge the Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division.
It hasn't worked out that way and the slow start ended up costing head coach Lindy Ruff his job.
While the Sabres have not had consistency, flashy winger Thomas Vanek has been dominant. He has 12 goals and 15 assists through his first 19 games and is third in the league in scoring as of Feb. 28.
The skilled Vanek has already had two five-point games and is among the best snipers in the league.
9. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens have gone from worst to first.
This team that got pushed around regularly in 2011-12 has used speed, cunning, defensive talent and opportunistic scoring to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Give new general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien much of the credit for creating a new environment around the Habs. The return of defenseman Andrei Markov and the rise of rookie Alex Galchenyuk have also given the Canadiens an energetic lift.
While it's hard to pinpoint one player as a standout for the Canadiens this season, don't sell goalie Carey Price short. He has an 11-3-2 record, a 1.90 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and two shutouts.
If the Canadiens maintain their lofty perch, Price is a legitimate MVP candidate.
8. John Tavares, New York Islanders
John Tavares has made steady progress throughout his NHL career.
However, he has put the steady climb on hold during the 2013 season. Instead, he has rocketed to the top.
He was on the border of becoming an elite player last year and now has proven he belongs in that category without any doubt.
The New York Islanders may not make the playoffs this year, but Tavares is a dominant player every time he steps on the ice. He has scored 13 goals and added 12 assists this season. He plays solid defense as well.
He has a shot to take home the 2013 Hart Trophy.
7. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators have come to expect spectacular play from Pekka Rinne. He has become the backbone of their defense and delivers nearly every year.
Rinne has had to take his game up a level this year as the Predators lost superstar Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild. The free-agent deal could have knocked the Predators down, but the consistently excellent play of Rinne won't let the Preds slip.
Nashville is clearly a playoff team as of Feb. 28. Even though the Preds don't give Rinne a lot of goal scoring support, he has an 8-6-4 record, a 2.11 GAA and a .919 save percentage. Rinne has already registered three shutouts and is a legitimate threat to hang a bagel on opponents in any game he plays.
More than the numbers, Rinne excels at coming up with big saves at key moments.
6. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks
Much like the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference, few thought the Anaheim Ducks would be a part of the playoff mix in the West after a dreadful 2011-12 season.
But instead of going along with the expectations, the Ducks have been opportunistic, nasty, physical and excellent through the end of February.
The Ducks have gotten great performances from Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, but Ryan Getzlaf has asserted himself this season and been a consistent threat. Through his first 18 games, Getzlaf has six goals and 15 assists to go with a plus-nine rating.
Few players see the ice like Getzlaf and he is making pinpoint passes to his teammates. Getzlaf will be a free agent at the end of the season and may go to the market with a Hart Trophy on his resume.
5. Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings may no longer be a dominant team without future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, but they are not fading away quietly either.
They are right in the mix of the Western Conference playoff race. They can be beaten, but it takes an opponent's best effort to come away with the "W."
One of the reasons for that has been the play of Henrik Zetterberg. Since taking over from Lidstrom as captain, Zetterberg has been the Red Wings' best player. He has six goals and 19 assists, placing him in a tie for fourth in the league in scoring with 25 points.
He has been at his best on the power play. Zetterberg has three goals and 11 points when the Wings have the man advantage.
If the Wings make the playoffs, Zetterberg will deserve much of the credit and will have made a legitimate case for the Hart Trophy.
4. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
Patrick Kane is playing the best hockey of his career through the first two months of the 2013 season and the Blackhawks have not lost a game in regulation time.
The two events are not coincidental.
Kane seems to play at warp speed when he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. He is holding on to the puck a split second longer than in previous seasons, making more plays and creating more opportunities for himself as well as his teammates.
The numbers have been spectacular. Kane is tied for sixth in the league in scoring with 10 goals and 14 assists. He has also shown defensive responsibility and has a plus-nine rating.
Kane has superb talent and is giving 100 percent every time he steps on the ice, making him a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate.
3. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
If you offered Jonathan Toews an easy $1 million, he would not take it.
He has too much of a work ethic. He does not want to be given anything. Every time he dons his Blackhawks jersey, he is willing to pay the price so his team can get a win.
That's the only thing that matters to him. If he scores three goals in the process, so be it. If he doesn't get his name on the scoresheet, he could not care less. Toews wants to win.
He excels at defense and is either the best or second-best faceoff man in the league (along with Boston's Patrice Bergeron).
For the record, Toews has seven goals and eight assists in his first 19 games and a plus-nine rating. But throw the numbers out when Toews is on the ice.
He takes responsibility for his team winning and almost always delivers.
2. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
This is how good Steven Stamkos is: Despite leading the league in scoring with 30 points, having scored 14 goals and 16 assists, he has not even hit a real hot streak yet.
Stamkos is the No. 1 sniper in the game, having bypassed Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. He is a remarkably conditioned athlete who gets better every year.
If the Lightning can return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, they will have Stamkos to thank.
In this 48-game season, don't doubt for a second that he could finish the year with at least 35 goals.
1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Sidney Crosby is back.
After seeing the majority of his last two seasons ruined by concussion-related health issues, Crosby is back on the ice and performing at a sensational level.
He has incredible physical gifts that allow him to skate with speed, balance, agility and power,. He knows the game like few players who have ever competed in the NHL.
While he's not as talented as Wayne Gretzky or former Penguins legend Mario Lemieux, Crosby is at the next level compared to his peers. He is capable of dominating the game every night. Through the Penguins' first 20 games, Crosby has nine goals and 21 assists and he is plus-nine. He is a demon on the power play with two goals and 10 assists.
With his health issues completely behind him, look for Crosby to run away with the league's scoring title and further assert himself with each passing game.