There is no clear-cut, runaway candidate for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, in large part because of the deflected shot that broke Sidney Crosby’s jaw to bits and still has him sidelined, post-surgery, with the playoffs to start this week. Sid the Kid (15-41—56 through 36 games) was running away with it, until the ricochet of teammate Brooks Orpik’s shot nailed him in the kisser March 30.
That said, they don’t put an asterisk on the Hart, a trophy that probably should carry at least a Post-it note as a way of reminding everyone that it is not the “best player’’ award. Though the distinction may be fine — and some years the same player fits the bill for both — the Hart is awarded to the player who is adjudged most valuable to his team. The simple standard to apply, before casting a vote, is to ask: Where would his team be without him? The problem with that standard this year, of course, is Crosby/Pittsburgh. In case anyone missed it, the Penguins didn’t fall off the face of the earth without him. In fact, after losing their first two games (Sabres, Rangers) by a collective 10-2, they rattled off seven straight wins by a 28-15 margin en route to clinching the No. 1 seed in the East.
Of course, the lineup that Crosby exited is dramatically different than the one that will enter the postseason as a convincing conference favorite. In the hours before and after Crosby being felled, general manager Ray Shero augmented the roster with the likes of Brenden Morrow (ex-Dallas), Jarome Iginla (ex-Calgary), Doug Murray (ex-San Jose), and Jussi Jokinen (ex-Carolina). As pickup artists go, Shero must be considered the game’s highest-ranking lounge lizard based on bringing home those four as last call was being announced at the trade deadline.
Had Shero not worked his managerial magic, the Penguins no doubt would have slumped, which in turn would have bolstered the MVP case for Crosby. Now that they’ve thrived, the 25-year-old centerman’s Hart stock has actually diminished. The bet here is that we’ll get a good chuckle out of that if Crosby returns for the postseason and the Penguins march on to their second Cup in five seasons. In his five postseasons, Crosby has delivered 1.32 points per game, a hair below his 1.40 in the regular season.
Provided injury crossed Crosby off most Hart ballots, where do the votes go? A fab four to keep in mind:
■ Alexander Ovechkin (Capitals, RW) — Entering the weekend, the game’s biggest shooter (217 shots on net heading into Saturday night’s action vs. the Bruins) had totals of 32-22—54. About two weeks prior to Crosby’s injury, Ovechkin started an offensive tear that read 22-10—32 over the 20 games since March 16. Not only did he rehab his own tarnished image, he pulled the Capitals out of the DNQ scrapheap and marched them to the top of the Southeast Division. If he wins the Hart, it will be his third MVP — the equal of ex-Penguins great Mario Lemieux (1988, ’93, and ’96).
■ Sergei Bobrovsky (Blue Jackets, G) — Originally signed as a free agent by the Flyers, the 24-year-old was shipped to Columbus last June for three draft picks and has been sensational the last eight weeks, including a pair of five-game winning streaks. The 5-0 run in March, in which he allowed only four goals, was part of an 8-0-3 stretch that began at the end of February. Heading into Saturday, he had a .931 save percentage (tops among league workhorses) and a 2.03 goals-against mark.
■ P.K. Subban (Canadiens, D) — The player Boston fans love to hate, in part because of his sophomoric on-ice antics. But he is a huge talent and should finish the season as the game’s top-scoring blue liner (11-27—38) With their powerful puck-rusher unsigned in January, the Habs went 4-2. They then went 24-12-5 heading into Saturday. Few backliners bring the puck up with his speed, boldness, bravado. He is prone to error and misguided antics, but is nonetheless a dynamic force, essential to the Habs’ renaissance.
■ John Tavares (Islanders, C) — After Friday night’s game at Buffalo, the fourth-year pivot had been shut out in five of eight games, but his play and productivity (48 games, 47 points) helped turn the sad-sack Islanders into a plucky, perhaps disruptive, playoff bunch. Similar to Crosby, he is the picture of hockey humble, and he delivers at a point-per-game pace no matter what combination of wingers gets thrown his way.
Pressed for a selection, I’d go with Ovechkin. It took him a few weeks to adjust to the move from left wing to right, and to accept the message of a new coach (Adam Oates), but he’s delivering again at Alexander the Great levels. If he keeps it going, maybe the Capitals finally shake their run of spectacular playoff derailments.
Miller may need to go
Not a pretty sight a week ago Friday in Buffalo, where disgruntled Sabres fans jeered franchise goalie Ryan Miller, to the point that he eventually flashed the house a mock wave in the second period — just before he was yanked in favor of backup Jhonas Enroth.
“If they can dish it out,’’ a disgruntled Miller mused after the 8-4 loss to the Rangers, which officially rubbed the Sabres out of the playoff picture, “they can take it back.’’
That 1-2 punch of Miller’s wave and words, at the tail end of the NHL’s lockout nightmare, won’t sit well with vox populi at the edge of Lake Erie. Miller, who will be 33 when next season begins, has one year left on his deal at a $6.25 million cap hit. GM Darcy Regier now must decide whether to bring him back or move him in the offseason and hand the top job to the 24-year-old Enroth, Miller’s understudy the last four seasons.
Miller never looked better than in February 2010, when he backed Team USA to within a goal of the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver. He has since gone from face of the franchise to the face of frustration, the disassembled Sabres left to rebrand the franchise with a boatload of draft picks and the erratic scoring touch of Thomas Vanek.
Truth is, Miller deserved better from the home crowd. Lost in the hectoring of his effort a week ago Friday were the matching minus-5s of defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Andrej Sekera. The first two goals to elude Miller in a three-goal Rangers first period banged in through the usual mess in front of the net, not unlike, say, 80 percent of the goals scored each year around the league. Such rub-of-the-rink goals often make or break playoff series. In Miller’s case, they may have broken his career, at least the one he has lived in Buffalo for 10 seasons.
Miller’s histrionics were somewhat reminiscent of Patrick Roy’s adieu in Montreal. St. Patrick’s last game wearing the CH in the old Forum had him stomping around irate behind the bench after being left in net far too long. He was quickly dished to the ex-Nordiques (Dec. 6, 1995), by then doing business as the Colorado Avalanche, and went on to win two more Cups.
“Well, I would love to have what happened after that,’’ said Miller, when reminded of Roy’s hasty exit and success in the Rockies. “Just saying. It doesn’t mean I want to leave, but if that’s what you’re getting at. He won two Stanley Cups after that, so, hey, why not?’’
Staals meet in one place
Unlike his more famous brothers, Jared Staal didn’t come equipped with the E-ZPass from junior hockey to the NHL, but he finally landed there last week. The Hurricanes called him up from Charlotte just shy of five years after the Coyotes selected him in Round 2 of the 2008 draft. With injured Marc Staal in town for a Hurricanes-Rangers matchup Thursday, all four brothers, including Carolina stars Eric and Jordan, were under one roof for the night. The Hurricanes became the first NHL team in nearly 30 years to have three brothers on the same roster. The Blackhawks did it first, in 1942-43, with Max, Doug, and Reggie Bentley. The Blues, 1968-69-1971-72, had Bob, Barclay, and Bill Plager. And the Nordiques of 1981-82-1984-85 were stocked with Peter, Anton, and Marian Stastny. Six Sutter brothers — Brian, Duane, Darryl, Brent, Rich, and Ron — made it to the bigs, but never counted more than two on the same roster. Three Sutters in the same sweaters likely would have led to nightly line brawls, inside their own dressing room. Jared Staal debuted with a 0-0—0 line and squeezed off but one shot in the Hurricanes’ 4-3 loss to the Rangers.
Chicago’s Duncan Keith grew edgy and dismissive with a female reporter (Karen Thomson) from a Vancouver radio station after a Blackhawks loss there Monday night when the latter noted that perhaps the defenseman was fortunate not to be whistled for a slashing penalty during the game. He disagreed, telling Thomson, “Maybe we should get you as a ref, hey? First female referee. You probably can’t play either, right? But you’re thinking the game like you know it, right? See ya.’’ The clatter that followed on social media charged Keith with being sexist, which it is, but only if one is really looking to call a penalty. Even Thomson the next day tweeted, “I’ve moved on.’’ Player-reporter pushbacks are part of the locker-room landscape, have been for decades. On the media side, man or woman, the key is knowing which battles to pick and how hard to fight in that moment. Smarmy, dismissive comments such as Keith’s are worth exactly the tweet Thomson gave them.
Bruins fans love to keep up the “Thank you, Kessel’’ tickle each time the ex-Boston first-rounder comes to town. The Garden crowd will be in full throat again if there is a Bruins-Maple Leafs playoff matchup for the first time since 1974 (Round 1, Bruins sweep). His empty performances against Boston aside, Kessel the last two years has collected more points than any NHLer other than Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, and Claude Giroux. Kessel is streaky. He is excessively shy, to the point of being rude. And he is not the equal of Malkin, Stamkos, Giroux or even, say, Patrice Bergeron, as a franchise building block. But he gets his points, which, like winning, possesses its own beauty. Unless the Leafs tie him up, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July 2014, with a scoring résumé that should bring him $6 million or more per season. The Leafs wrapped up their season Saturday night vs. Montreal and Kessel entered the game with 51 points in 47 games, the first time in his career he has edged above the point-per-game threshhold.
It took until Wednesday night for someone (Martin St. Louis) to move ahead of the idled Sidney Crosby in the scoring race. St. Louis potted a hat trick to lift his point total to 58, two ahead of Crosby in the hunt for the Art Ross Trophy. St. Louis, undrafted out of Vermont and quickly dismissed by the Flames, was only 28 when he won the Ross with 94 points as a Bolt in 2003-04. Now he’s on the verge of doing it again at age 37. The little dynamo will play in his 1,000th NHL game early next season and will be a lock for Hall of Fame induction. Per Bob Waterman at the Elias Sports Bureau, St. Louis would be the oldest to win the Ross, eclipsing a mark set 80 years ago by then 36-year-old Ranger Bill Cook, who led the way with 28-22—50 in what was then, like this year, a 48-game season. Boston’s Marty Barry was seventh that season with 37 points. Perennial scoring champ Gordie Howe was age 34 when he won his final Art Ross Trophy in 1962-63 with 86 points in 70 games.
Because of the two Vezinas and one Conn Smythe Tim Thomas left behind, we’re picky here in the Hub of Hockey, which is to say many have overlooked Tuukka Rask as a serious Vezina contender this season. But consider a couple of key indicators as the weekend approached: Among the 21 goalies to make 30 or more starts this season, Rask ranked No. 1 in goals-against average (1.94), and his save percentage (.931) was tied for first with Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky. Because wins usually rule the day with goalies, Rask’s total (19) could keep him from earning enough Vezina votes from general managers. In fact, it’s possible he won’t finish in the top three. But he should be in the discussion, if not the favorite. His lack of wins (San Jose’s Antti Niemi led the way with 24) is in large part a reflection of a club that has underperformed on the attack. In 2010-11, when Thomas won the Cup, Vezina, and Smythe, the Bruins averaged 3.00 goals per game in the regular season. This year, they’ve averaged 2.76 per game (prior to Saturday night). In this league, a 0.24 drop in production (about 11 goals total) probably cost Rask the handful of wins that could keep him off many ballots.
As the weekend approached, only three NHLers averaged three minutes or more per game on both the penalty kill and power play: Paul Martin, Dion Phaneuf, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Only three players did the same last season: Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, and Tomas Plekanec . . . Word out of Penguins camp late in the week was that Crosby could be ready to go in Game 1 of the playoffs, despite still being in need of some dental work to repair the many teeth that were chipped, fractured or knocked out by Brooks Orpik’s deflected shot . . . Ex-Bruins coach Don Cherry told Fan 590 in Toronto last week that Mike Milbury, in his NBC role as on-air Ripper in Chief, deserves credit for Alexander Ovechkin’s turnaround. Milbury is an ex-Bruins coach, too. And as an ex-coach, Milbury, I bet, would get a good chuckle that a player might respond better to criticism fired from an anchor desk than, say, from what coach Adam Oates whispered in his ear from behind the bench . . . Rask Thursday night after posting his second consecutive Garden shutout, when thinking ahead to the playoffs: “It’s the best time in a hockey player’s life.’’
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.