Time to crown NHL award winners as playoffs loom

Apr 4 2012 - 6:56pm

Throw away those losing brackets. Forget about fighting allergies in Georgia.

Batter up? Yeah, that sounds promising. But, call us in September when the pennant races heat up.

April really means it's time to lace up the skates, grow some mangy good-luck facial hair and get ready to chase the Stanley Cup. For the Canadian readers, that's the big ol' trophy with the bowl on top that's traditionally hoisted high over the heads by the newly crowned NHL champions.

In 1994, the Cup came back to the U.S. via Broadway and sport's most popular trophy hasn't needed to travel with its passport for the last 18 years.

Will the Stanley Cup make another trip down the Canyon of Heroes?

The playoffs are a slapshot away and 15 teams are out to dethrone the Boston Bruins and take a swig out of hockey's colossal champagne flute.

First, though, a quick look back at the regular season and who deserves some "Around the Rinks" hardware. Buckle up and, please, Wayne Simmonds, don't forget your visor.

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Hart Memorial Trophy (Most Valuable Player): The Flyers took a big risk last summer with a roster overhaul that put the pressure right on Claude Giroux. The All-Star forward has delivered with career highs in goals (28) and points (92) and shown he has an MVP in his future. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos needs a late surge to score 60 goals and might be the leading candidate if Tampa Bay wasn't stuck outside the playoff race. The Rangers rode goalie Henrik Lundqvist all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference. But the winner here is Pittsburgh's EVGENI MALKIN. The Penguins hoped Sidney Crosby would be part of the MVP discussion, but the 2009 winner missed more than half the season with recurring concussion-like symptoms. No biggie. In his stead, Malkin developed into arguably the best player in the world. The 25-year-old Russian is a lock for his first scoring title and single-handedly revived linemate James Neal's career. He willed the Penguins out of a six-game slide in January that threatened to derail their season and became so dominant opposing teams put their best defenders out against his line instead of sending them out to face Crosby. Even with Crosby back, Malkin hasn't missed a beat and is poised to join Sid the Kid, Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux as Pittsburgh's NHL MVPs.

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Vezina Trophy (Top Goaltender): Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick has played lights out even with often anemic offensive support. He has 35 wins and a whopping 10 shutouts. He's placed the Kings in position to win the Pacific Division and earn the No. 3 seed in the West. Not bad at all. But just a tick below New York's HENRIK LUNDQVIST. He earned his career-best 39th victory on Tuesday when the Rangers topped the Flyers and clinched the No. 1 seed in the East. He has eight shutouts and a sparkling 1.93 goals-against average. His 39 wins rank second on New York's single-season list and he'll be the key cog in the playoffs if the Rangers are going to win their first Stanley Cup since Mark Messier led a 1994 Rangers team that was, some say, fated to win the championship.

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Norris Trophy (Top Defenseman): Nashville's Shea Weber would be welcomed on any blue line. His 19 goals and 49 points are both in the top five among defenseman and he leads all blueliners with 10 power-play goals this season. Boston's Zdeno Chara is surely in the mix. But Ottawa's ERIK KARLSSON has 19 goals and 77 points, which should make up for his lack of playing time on the penalty kill and earn him his first Norris Trophy. He's among the chief reasons the Senators have enjoyed a surprising renaissance season that has landed them back in the playoffs.

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Calder Trophy (Most Outstanding Rookie): This is a tough one. Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seemed to have the award won when he was made the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. He hasn't disappointed with 51 points, but a season cut to just 60 games because of various injuries is enough to rule him out. Matt Read has done a nice job with the Flyers and Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog has a bright future in the Rockies. But this award goes to New Jersey's ADAM HENRIQUE. He was a pleasant surprise in training camp and that carried over once he was given a shot to contribute a few games into the season. He's strengthened the Devils down the middle and has them on the brink of 100 points a year after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

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Jack Adams Trophy (Top Coach): And the nominees are ... ah, forget it. You'd have to be living under an arch to not know the winner. Ken Hitchcock took over a slumping and underachieving St. Louis Blues team in November and turned them into a 106-point powerhouse in the Western Conference. He's never won the award even though he won a Stanley Cup in Dallas and led the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals. Where ever the Blues land this season, they'll know they have the NHL's top coach for 2011-12 leading the way.

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That's a look back. Now, let's see what the next two months will bring in the NHL:

As Rangers general manager Glen Sather walked off the Philadelphia press elevator Tuesday night and headed to the locker room, he was greeted by the outstretched hand of a longtime security guard from the Wells Fargo Center. The guard smiled, stopped Sather and said, "Well, Mr. Sather, congratulations." Sather, smiled, nodded, shook his hand, and moved on. The No. 1 seed in the East is great, but there are bigger tasks at hand for the Rangers.

The NEW YORK RANGERS are the class of the East and will be playing for the Cup in June.

Out West, Hitchcock has revived the Blues, and the Red Wings' record home winning streak makes them a threat to win their second Cup in five seasons.

But it's been hard to shake the memories from that fateful 1994 season with the way the Rangers have played this season. So, it's only fitting that 18 years later, the same two teams battle in the Finals, right? It just makes sense that a motivated, inspired, seasoned VANCOUVER CANUCKS team returns to the final round for the second time in as many years. Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and the Canucks will gave Canada yet another chance to end its Stanley Cup drought.

A chance to end it, yes. End it? Nope.

The Rangers will beat the Canucks in six games and win the Stanley Cup.

Please, though, don't ask for a guarantee.

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