The Chicago Blackhawks are quickly coming up on the midway point of the 2013-14 season. With 39 games in the books heading into a tough weekend of action, it's a good time to talk about the Hawks' most valuable player for the first half.
Following Monday night's 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, the Blackhawks have a few days off to celebrate the holidays. All three of my MVP candidates had a hand in Chicago's victory, so let's begin the discussion there.
It's not as easy a choice as you may think, folks. The Blackhawks potentially have an Art Ross winner, a Norris Trophy recipient and a rookie of the year on their roster. Here is a quick look at these players.
At first glance, you're saying, "Hold on! This is a rookie with 10 starts to his name. He was in Rockford when the season began. Raanta has not been the best player on the Hawks so far."
All that may be true. Raanta may not have been the best of the Blackhawks in the first half. You can, however, make a case that he has been the most valuable.
The Finnish rookie faced a mere 12 shots Monday from the Devils, allowing two goals. Chicago hasn't always been quite that stingy on defense, but the Hawks have limited the shots Raanta has had to handle. In his 12 appearances, he has seen 30 or more shots just three times.
Handling the puck can be an adventure for the 24-year-old rookie. Raanta has been susceptible to shots between his pads and is prone to getting out of position. He's an athletic player who still needs some polish to his game.
On the other hand, Raanta is 8-1-2 following the win over New Jersey. He has a 2.20 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Save for the Dec. 14 loss in Toronto, Raanta has put Chicago in a position to win. Would we be saying the same if Nikolai Khabibulin was toiling in net?
Corey Crawford going down with an injury at the start of the month could well have sent the Blackhawks reeling. Raanta's performance in goal has been an early Christmas present that came at just the right time.
Who has been Chicago's MVP in the first half of the season?
Keith had a secondary assist on what turned out to be the game-winning goal midway through the second period. He got things started on the play with a two-line pass from his own zone to Brandon Saad. The pass ultimately led to Bryan Bickell's sixth goal of the season.
The assist was Keith's 30th of 2013-14, a total that places him first among defensemen and fifth in the entire NHL. Keith trails only Ottawa's Erik Karlsson in blue-line scoring with 33 points so far.
Karlsson has 10 goals and 37 points this season. Of course, Keith's plus-16 skater rating (Karlsson is a minus-eight) should thrust him squarely into Norris Trophy consideration.
As opposed to previous years when I thought Keith was aided greatly by the performance of partner Brent Seabrook, it has been a bit of a role reversal in 2013-14. Keith has been making a big difference on the defensive end and has taken Seabrook along for the ride.
Seabrook has 26 points of his own and is a plus-19 to boot. He's not chopped liver, but I credit a degree of that success to Keith.
As hot as Patrick Sharp has been of late, there is no question that Kane has been the best player on the ice on a nightly basis for the Hawks. The elevation of Kane's play has been noticeable league-wide.
Kane pounced on a rebound given up by Cory Schneider 7:57 into the middle frame on Monday to record his 22nd goal of the season. Kane has recorded points in 24 of his last 25 contests, dating back to Nov. 3.
With 49 points in 39 games, Kane has set himself up for a career season. He trails Sidney Crosby by five points for the highest point total in the NHL. He's also tied with Corey Perry for third in the league in goals. Six of those goals were game-winners, a figure that ties Kane for second in the NHL.
There is no question that Kane has become a more dangerous player on the ice by looking for his shot more consistently. He is making his linemates better and his hockey smarts are on full display.
The result is a slew of scoring opportunities that have been a big part of the Blackhawks' league-leading offensive output. Kane's steady excellence makes him the obvious choice for first-half MVP in Chicago.