Johnston on NHL: Crosby vs. Ovechkin for Hart

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will renew their rivalry Thursday night. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

It was only a few months ago that the Sid vs. Ovie debate seemed to have been put to rest for good.

Alex Ovechkin basically waved the white flag himself during a Feb. 7 trip to Pittsburgh when reporters asked him where he stood compared with Sidney Crosby.

“He’s way too up, I’m way too down,” he said. “Just have to catch him.”

That seemed like a longshot at best. Ovechkin’s long reign as the league’s most exciting player appeared to be over while Crosby had reaffirmed his status as the game’s best. The gap between the dueling faces of the NHL was greater than ever before.

So it is with more than a little surprise that we find ourselves in the waning days of the shortened season facing a familiar question: Sid or Ovie?

This time, reporters and fans are trying to determine which player should be awarded the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

The list of deserving candidates also includes the likes of Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and Sergei Bobrovsky, but it is Ovechkin and Crosby that are currently driving the conversation — with a little help from their coaches.

To no one’s surprise, Adam Oates has already registered a public vote for his captain. But the Washington Capitals coach raised a few eyebrows when he stated that
Crosby’s time missed to injury should work against him.

Dan Bylsma, his counterpart in Pittsburgh, certainly took note.

“Adam Oates is the only person that I’ve heard who doesn’t think Sidney Crosby hasn’t done enough to deserve the Hart Trophy,” Bylsma told reporters on Wednesday.

Oates spoke out in support of Ovechkin after watching the flashy Russian score his 19th goal in 18 games — and league-leading 28th of the season — during
Tuesday’s 5-1 win over Toronto.

The man known as the Great 8 has been playing like a runaway train after stumbling out of the gate. No one has been able to slow him down for more than a month.
Despite the sluggish start, Oates believes his best player deserves to win the Hart Trophy for a third time.

“I’m obviously very biased about that,” he said. “My answer would be yeah, absolutely. Obviously Sidney Crosby is another candidate for sure. He had such a scoring lead. But I think you’ve got to factor in the fact that he’s missed a lot of games.

“But it’s not really for me to say though, it’s you guys.”

Voting will be conducted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association at the end of next week and the winner will be announced in June. The award itself is intended to recognize the “player judged most valuable to his team.”

Oates raised an interesting point about Crosby, who continued to lead the league scoring race despite missing his seventh game Wednesday after taking a puck to the face and suffering a broken jaw.

Over the last 40 years, only one skater has been awarded the Hart Trophy despite sitting out more than seven games that season: Mario Lemieux. The former Penguins star (and current owner) took home the MVP honours after playing 60 of 84 games in 1992-93 and 70 of 82 games in 1995-96.

Besides that, the award has been the exclusive property of those blessed with good health.

Simply put, it is tough to judge the precise value a player has to his team when he misses a chunk of the season. And what does it say when that team keeps winning as the Penguins have without Crosby?

Ovechkin has appeared in all 43 Capitals games so far this season.

Crosby, the Penguins captain, resumed skating this week and could return for the final few games of the regular season — possibly in time to secure the scoring title.

Entering play Wednesday, he remained three points up on Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, and five ahead of Ovechkin.

Crosby’s points per game average of 1.56 is particularly impressive since he missed the majority of the previous two seasons with concussion and neck issues. He was considered a virtual shoo-in for the Hart Trophy until a slapshot from Brooks Orpik caught him directly in the mouth.

Now the race appears wide open.

Coming off seasons with 32 and 38 goals, it was reasonable to wonder if Ovechkin would ever again be the same dynamic player who burst into the league in 2005. He’s back. The Caps star is scoring at a pace that equates to almost 55 goals over a full season and has sparked his team’s climb to the top of the Southeast Division.

When it comes to the Hart Trophy, other candidates can’t be ruled out either. Here are four that this reporter is giving serious consideration along with Crosby and Ovechkin:

– Toews: The Chicago Blackhawks are well on their way to the Presidents’ Trophy in large part due to their captain. Toews does everything for this team. Among the NHL leaders in points, he wins 60 per cent of his faceoffs and plays a big role on the penalty kill and power play.

– Tavares: The fourth-year forward is on the verge of getting the Islanders back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Tavares leads the team with 24 goals and 42 points and plays nearly 21 minutes per night.

– Getzlaf: It’s been a major bounce-back year for the Anaheim Ducks captain, who has already surpassed his goal total from a year ago. Getzlaf is back to being a point per game player for a surprising Ducks team that is likely to take the Pacific Division crown.

– Bobrovsky: Arguably the biggest surprise in the entire league this season and a strong candidate for the Vezina Trophy as well. Bobrovsky has found a home in Columbus, where he’s posted a save percentage of .931 while keeping the Blue Jackets in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

For many voters, the final choice is likely to come down to Ovechkin and Crosby.

The NHL’s ever-present debate is alive after all.

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