When Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby suffered a jaw injury on March 30, there was no Hart Trophy race because he was the clear choice for the voters. No one else had a résumé strong enough to create a debate.
Fast-forward 16 days, and the race has become wide open with several candidates making their case to be named as finalists for the award.
One of those candidates is Alex Ovechkin, whose dominant play over the last month has vaulted him into the Hart Trophy conversation as one of the top two candidates with Crosby.
As the calendar turned to March and it looked like the Washington Capitals were going to miss the playoffs for the first time in the last six seasons, Ovechkin raised his game and brought his team from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings to the top of the Southeast Division.
The NHL is now in a familiar and exciting scenario: Crosby and Ovechkin battling for the Hart Trophy. Each player has won the award before, and they are the top two candidates to take home this year's trophy.
Let's look at why these players are so valuable to their teams, and then decide which one is the favorite for the 2013 Hart Trophy right now.
Sidney Crosby's Case for the Hart
Crosby has missed the Penguins' last six games because of a jaw injury, but he still leads the NHL with 56 points, 41 assists and a 1.56 points-per-game average.
Over a full 82-game season, Crosby would be on pace for an astounding 128 points. With points in 28 of the 36 games he has played, including 16 multi-point games, Crosby has been one of the most consistent players in the NHL this season. In the seven games he's played against the top four teams in the East (Boston, Montreal, Washington), Crosby has tallied 13 points.
With Evgeni Malkin missing 14 games due to injury and not performing at an MVP level this year, Crosby carried the Penguins' scoring attack when healthy and helped the team climb to the top of the league in offense with 3.3 goals scored per game.
Pittsburgh also ranks second in power-play percentage (23.9), and Crosby's 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) with the man advantage is the primary reason for this success on special teams. His 453 faceoff wins are the fourth-most of any player, and this is an area of Crosby's game that has really improved since he came into the league.
One of the biggest reasons why Crosby is so valuable to the Penguins is the impact he has on his teammates' success offensively.
For example, his wingers on the team's first line, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, have both enjoyed career years from a scoring perspective because of Crosby's passing skills, vision and the attention that opposing teams pay him in the attacking zone.
Kunitz ranks fourth in scoring with 47 points and leads the Penguins with 21 goals, but he has only found the back of the net once since his center left the lineup with an injury. In fact, 16 of Kunitz's 21 goals have been assisted by Crosby.
Crosby was simply playing on a level above his competition when healthy, and his incredible performance offensively was the key reason that the Penguins won 15 straight games in March. During that span, No. 87 had 25 points (six goals, 19 assists), and in the first game he missed after suffering a jaw injury, Pittsburgh lost 4-1 to the struggling Buffalo Sabres and the win streak ended.
If Crosby wins the Hart, he will likely become the first player since 2002 to win the award without also taking home the Art Ross (top scorer) or Maurice Richard (top goal scorer) trophies.
Alex Ovechkin's Case for the Hart
Ovechkin is making a late-season push for the Hart Trophy that is similar to what Corey Perry did during the 2010-11 season with the Anaheim Ducks.
Perry's amazing performance in the final two months of the year was the primary reason why the Ducks earned a playoff berth. The Ducks star finished the year with 19 goals and 11 assists in his team's final 16 games, which helped him win the Hart over Vancouver Canucks star Daniel Sedin, who led the league in scoring with 41 goals and 63 assists on the President's Trophy winning team.
On March 14, Washington was 10-14-1 and making the playoffs did not seem like a realistic goal for the club since it was near the bottom of the East standings.
The Capitals took on the Carolina Hurricanes on that day and won 3-2 thanks to a game-tying third-period goal by Ovechkin, who also assisted on Mike Ribeiro's game-winner in the final three minutes of the game.
Starting with the March 14 victory over Carolina, Ovechkin has scored 17 goals with eight assists in his team's last 17 games, and the Capitals have a 13-3-1 record in that span. This helps show a direct correlation between the Capitals' recent success and Ovechkin's resurgence.
Ovechkin has skyrocketed up the NHL's scoring leaderboard over the last month and now ranks fifth with a total of 47 points, including a league-leading 27 goals. Despite a poor start to 2013 in which he tallied just three points in his first eight games, Ovechkin also ranks ninth in points per game (1.10), first in shots on goal (193) and has four game-winning goals (fourth-highest total in the league).
The Capitals rank 20th in goals scored and 29th in penalty killing thus far, and the lack of a true No. 1 defenseman and some inconsistent goaltending are two primary reasons for the team's struggles defensively.
Washington has to score a lot of goals to win on a consistent basis, and to his credit, Ovechkin has carried his team in this aspect of the game at the most important time of the season.
The Capitals rank sixth in goals scored and also have the No. 1 ranked power play with an impressive 25.5 percent success rate. Ovechkin has 22 power-play points this season, including a league-leading 14 goals with the man-advantage. In both of his Hart Trophy winning seasons, Ovechkin dominated on the power play (37 PP points in 2007-08 and 42 PP points in 2008-09).
One of the most common criticisms of Ovechkin's Hart Trophy résumé is that a large portion of his points have been scored against Southeast Division opponents. Even though the Southeast is the worst division in the league and doesn't have any elite teams, criticizing Ovechkin for taking advantage of weaker opponents is absurd for a number of reasons.
First of all, it's not Ovechkin's fault that his team's schedule is made up of so many games versus Southeast opponents. He doesn't create the schedule. Having success against your division rivals is one of the most valuable things a player can do for his team.
When you look at some of the other notable Hart Trophy candidates, all of them have tallied a lot of points against non-playoff teams.
|Player||Pts vs. Non-Playoff Teams||Total Points||% vs. Non-Playoff Teams|
|Sidney Crosby (PIT)||23||56||41|
|John Tavares (NYI)||26||43||60|
|Jonathan Toews (CHI)||19||42||45|
|Patrick Kane (CHI)||25||46||54|
|Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)||21||44||48|
|Alex Ovechkin (WSH)||35||46||76|
The Southeast doesn't have many good teams, but they are still NHL clubs with quality players. These weak opponents aren't just letting Ovechkin score goals, he's had to earn his success.
After playing well below his normal standard earlier in the season, many analysts and fans were even contemplating whether not Ovechkin's time as an elite player had come to an end. When he struggled, so did his team, and the opposite has happened over the last few months while Ovechkin has played some of the best hockey of his career.
He is also helping his teammates during his recent offensive success because opposing teams have to pay so much attention to Ovechkin each shift, which allows players such as Nicklas Backstrom to have more time and space to excel in a playmaking role. Backstrom has 23 points in his last 17 games, and a lot of this production can be attributed to Ovechkin's more consistent goal scoring.
Ovechkin is one of the most dynamic players that the NHL has ever seen, and when he's on top of his game, it's incredibly difficult to stop him. He was harshly criticized early in the season and it motivated him to raise his level of performance and get the Capitals back into the playoff race.
Who is the Favorite for the Award?
As of April 15, Crosby is still the favorite to win the the Hart, but his chances of winning are getting slimmer with each impressive performance and victory by Ovechkin and the Capitals. Playing well at the end of the season helps you win awards because it's the last thing that voters saw when it comes time for them to cast their ballots.
If Ovechkin keeps scoring at, or near his current rate in the final two weeks of the regular season and leads the NHL goals, finishes with more points than Crosby and Washington captures the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs as Southeast Division champions, he will likely win the Hart.
When Crosby was in the Penguins lineup, they averaged 3.3 goals per game, and in the six games he has missed due to injury, Pittsburgh is still averaging 2.83 goals per game, including 14 goals in its last three games (all of which were wins). Pittsburgh is 4-2 since Crosby left the lineup, which has hurt his case for the Hart.
The Penguins' power play is also being effective without its top playmaker. Pittsburgh has converted on five of its 19 (26.3 percent) power play opportunities with the man advantage in the last six games, which is a better success rate than the team had with Crosby (23.9 percent).
Pittsburgh needs Crosby to have a chance for the Stanley Cup, but his absence does not prevent the team from winning games consistently because of the enormous talent, especially at forward that the Penguins have with Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen, Kunitz and Dupuis.
If Crosby doesn't play again in the regular season, he will have missed one quarter (12 games) of the Penguins' schedule. To be the most valuable player, you need to be on the ice on a regular basis. Since 2000, no forward/defenseman has missed more than eight percent of his team's schedule (seven games) and won the Hart in the same season.
The last player who missed 15 percent or more of a season and still won the Hart was Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, who still led the league in goals, assists and points despite playing in only 70 games. This year's race is a lot closer because Crosby won't lead the league in any of those categories when the regular season concludes.
If you were to take Ovechkin out of the Capitals lineup, they would not be anywhere close to a playoff team. The Capitals live and die by the performance of Ovechkin, and this is why he's so valuable to them.
Who is the favorite for the Hart Trophy?
When Ovi has failed to score a goal, the Capitals are 7-14-1. He needs to play at a high level for Washington to win games consistently, and he's done that over the last month to give his team a 92.2 percent chance of reaching the postseason (per Sports Club Stats). Without his recent resurgence, the Capitals are probably in ninth, tenth or eleventh place in the East right now.
One likely end-of-the-year scenario is Crosby winning the Ted Lindsay award as the league's most outstanding player and Ovechkin taking home the Hart as league MVP. In the games he's played, there's no question that Crosby was the NHL's most dominant player, but there are other guys who are more valuable to their team's success.
Just like Ovechkin, John Tavares is a top candidate for the Hart because without his impressive performance offensively, the New York Islanders would not be in a playoff spot.
With six or seven games remaining for most teams, there is plenty of time for players like Tavares, Ovechkin, or Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks to make a late-season push for the Hart. Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will also receive strong consideration as a finalist if he leads his team into the playoffs.
Crosby was leading the pack for the Hart when he got injured on March 30, but there have been several players since that time who are showing voters how valuable they are to their team as the playoff race intensifies.
The Penguins star is still the favorite for the Hart, but it would be very surprising if he won the trophy for the second time of his career when the NHL's best gather for the annual awards ceremony in June. If Pittsburgh continues to win games and the other candidates strengthen their Hart résumés in the final two weeks of the season, Crosby won't win the award.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.