The voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association had a tough challenge this season under the terms of the Hart, which is awarded to the "player adjudged most valuable to his team."
Ovechkin is seen as the dominant player on the Capitals and the prime reason they won the Southeast Division and finished second in the Eastern Conference.
Malkin is seen as a co-leader of his club, along with Sidney Crosby, the 2007 Hart winner. With Crosby affected until midway in the season by the high ankle sprain he suffered a year ago, it was Malkin's steady point production and clutch goals that kept the Penguins in the race until the Penguins got things together under coach Dan Bylsma.
For his part, Datsyuk is regarded by many as the NHL's top all-around player, showing tremendous offensive and defensive abilities.
Ovechkin is hoping to become the first forward to repeat as the Hart winner since Wayne Gretzky led the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup in 1984-85.
Gretzky won the Hart Trophy eight times in a row and nine times total, tops in both categories. No left winger had won the Hart since Bobby Hull in 1966. Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators was the first winner in 1923. The trophy was donated by Dr. David Hart, team physician of the Montreal Canadiens and father of longtime Canadians coach and general manager Cecil Hart.
For the first time in NHL history, all three finalists for the Hart are Russians. Ovechkin and Malkin were nominated last year, when Canadian Jarome Iginla, of the Calgary Flames, was the other finalist. Sergei Fedorov won in 1994. Dominik Hasek and John Vanbiesbrouck were the other finalists.
Datsyuk, Malkin and Ovechkin will be on hand for the 2009 NHL Awards, which will be broadcast live from the Pearl Concert Theater inside the Palms Hotel Las Vegas on June 18 on VERSUS in the United States and CBC in Canada. Tickets to the 2009 NHL Awards are on sale at ticketmaster.com/nhlawards and at the Pearl Concert Theater Box Office.
Here is a closer look at the finalists.
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings -- Datsyuk is the best all-around NHL player. The fourth-leading scorer this season also is bidding for his second-straight Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive player and fourth-straight Lady Byng Trophy as the player who combines the best performance with sportsmanship.
He plays the game the way it should be played. Datsyuk is a dynamic skater, extremely fast going straight-ahead and quick and shifty with his offensive and defensive moves. He takes pucks away from opponents who didn't realize they were in his sights. He converts those turnovers into breakaways and odd-man rushes in every game.
There may be no better passer in the NHL. His 65 assists ranked fifth this season. He was second a year ago, one behind Joe Thornton, and has been in the Top 10 the past four seasons. Over and over again, Datsyuk's passes are right on the tape, the effect of years and years of practice.
Datsyuk, the oldest of the three finalists at 30, is seen as the most professional, a quiet, dedicated hard worker who inspires his teammates to higher goals.
Datsyuk was third in the NHL with a plus-34 rating, after leading the league in that category late in the season. He finished ninth by winning 56.3 percent of his faceoffs and second with 89 takeaways. He further helps the Red Wings' defensively by staying out of the penalty box. Datsyuk had only 22 penalty minutes.
Datsyuk had 11 power-play goals, three game-winners and one short-handed goal.
Datsyuk is listed at 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds, but has always seemed smaller, going back into his youth. When his father took him to the local sports club in Sverdlovsk, he signed him up for the chess team. But Datsyuk overcame his childhood poverty and diminutive size to become a big, big man in the NHL.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins -- Malkin is a man-child in the NHL, still very much a boy, but a big one at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. He is just beginning to come into his physical and emotional maturity. That's the reason that Malkin, the No. 2 selection in the 2004 Entry Draft, is in only his third NHL season.
He played his first professional season for his hometown Magnitogorsk team and then stayed another season because he lacked the core body strength to handle the NHL style of play. He developed well under coach Dave King that year, learning a North American style that produced a 33-goal, 85-point rookie season two years ago. He advanced to 47 goals and 106 points last season, when he was sixth in assists and second in points.
game-winners. He took 290 shots, tenth-highest, and was plus-17.
Although is defensive game is overlooked, Malkin led the NHL with 94 takeaways and his 39 blocked shots were six more than Datsyuk and seven more than Ovechkin.
Malkin's versatility can't be overlooked. Malkin is adept at playing right wing on a line with Crosby or centering his own line. If Crosby and Malkin played together all the time, there's no doubt they would be the best line in the NHL but the ability to combine the two gives the Penguins, in essence, three strong lines within their top six forwards.
He seems a natural right winger anyway. His preferred route into the offensive zone is from the right side and he's strong in his play along the boards.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals -- If the Hart honored the best player in the League, it would probably go to Ovechkin. But it doesn't, it rewards the most valuable to his team. But Ovechkin has a strong case there, too.
Ovechkin repeated as the winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy by leading the NHL with 56 goals. Alexander Semin, whose hot start was instrumental in the Capitals grabbing control of the division, had 34 and defenseman Mike Green, a finalist for the Norris Trophy, had 31. Ovechkin's 110 points led the Capitals and were second in the NHL. The next nearest Capitals player was Nicklas Backstrom with 88. Semin had 79 and Green had 73.
The Capitals are a young, talented team with several emerging stars in Green, Backstrom, Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich and Simeon Varlamov. Ovechkin has clearly helped make them better. Green, Semin and Backstrom spent considerable time on ice with him this season, boosting their point totals. Ovechkin's 54 assists were tenth-best in the NHL.
Ovechkin, 23, led the NHL with 526 shots and was second with 19 power-play goals. His 10 game-winning goals were third-best. His 10.6 shooting percentage was excellent.
If there is a weakness in his candidacy, it was his plus-8 finish, well below Malkin and Datsyuk and only tied for fifth on the Capitals. But Ovechkin is the productive and charismatic leader of an emerging club that promises to be good for years to come. He is fast, strong, brave, and determined to win. He's solidly built for the task and seems to have unlimited energy. He can take over a game at any point with his brilliant skating and his rugged checking.
There is enough productive talent on this team to think that they could have won the division without him in a year that Carolina and Florida started slowly and Atlanta and Tampa Bay had off years.
But they wouldn't have finished second in the Eastern Conference. Ovechkin was a very valuable player for his team.