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Central: Datsyuk is top choice for Player of the Year

by Dan Rosen
On Jan. 17, right at the time every team hit the 41-game mark, we handed out some midseason awards in the Central Division. Well, now that we're in the last weekend of the season, it's only right for us to hand out our end-of-the-season awards.

Before we take a look ahead toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs, let's take a look back and recognize who was the best in what can easily be labeled the NHL's most competitive division:

Player of the Year: Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit -- He was our pick for Player of the Year in the midseason, and Datsyuk has done nothing to sway our thinking. He has been simply remarkable this season for the Wings and is a likely finalist for the Hart Trophy.

The Wings' superlative center leads everyone on the team in scoring by 25 points entering the final weekend. He has 32 goals and 65 assists for 97 points, which is fourth in the NHL. He had 47 points at the 41-game mark.

Also a defensive wizard, Datsyuk has 89 takeaways and a plus-37 rating, making him a likely finalist for the Selke Trophy as well. And since he has only 22 penalty minutes, he is once again in line for the Lady Byng Trophy, which he's won three straight years.

Runner-up: Jonathan Toews, Chicago

Coach of the Year: Andy Murray, St. Louis Blues -- Our midseason choice was Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks and although he has done nothing wrong, Murray has done just about everything right in the second half to race past Quenneville as well as deserving candidates Barry Trotz of Nashville, Ken Hitchcock of Columbus and Mike Babcock of Detroit.

Murray's Blues were dead last in the Western Conference at the 41-game mark, but they entered the final weekend of the season with a chance to clinch a playoff berth. They had only 16 wins and 35 points in their first 41 games, but reeled off 23 wins and 53 points in their next 39. They played Columbus on Friday.

He mixed youngsters like David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund with veterans like Keith Tkachuk, Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald. Murray showed faith in goalie Chris Mason, who has answered the call resoundingly well. He found a way to make a defense without captain Eric Brewer and top young prospect Erik Johnson work.

Runner-up: Joel Quenneville, Chicago

Rookie of the Year: Steve Mason, Columbus -- Mason lapped an excellent field of candidates with consistently stellar play throughout the season once he took over as the Jackets' No. 1 goalie in early November. He is a potential candidate for the Vezina Trophy as well.

Mason entered the final weekend with a League-best 10 shutouts and a 33-18-7 record. He was second in goals-against average (2.23) behind Boston's Tim Thomas, tied for seventh in save percentage (.918) and ninth in wins. He had six shutouts and a 16-9-1 record at the 41-game mark.

With Mason in net, the Jackets made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Runner-up: T.J. Oshie, St. Louis

Surprise Player of the Year: Pekka Rinne, Nashville -- Rinne isn't a surprise to the good folks in Nashville like GM David Poile, Trotz and goalie coach Mitch Korn. They knew all about the 26-year-old Finn considering he played the last three seasons for the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate.

Around the League, though, everyone had Dan Ellis penciled in as the Predators' goalie this season considering his strong finish to last season resulted in a new two-year contract and Poile dealing Chris Mason to St. Louis the day before the draft.

Rinne and Ellis went neck and neck for a while, but in the second half of the season, Rinne won the job outright and took the Predators to the brink of the postseason.

Rinne entered the final game of the season (Friday night against Minnesota) with a 29-14-4 record. His 2.31 GAA was tied for third in the NHL and his .919 save percentage was sixth.

Runner-up: Chris Mason, St. Louis

Comeback Player of the Year: Steve Sullivan, Nashville --This is hands down the easiest award to give out for this division.

Sullivan missed 23 months with a debilitating back injury, but he never gave up hope that he was going to play again even though there were times he couldn't even get out of bed in the morning without searing pain.

The Predators skilled forward returned to the lineup Jan. 10 with no expectations. He only wanted to get through his first shift and hopefully feel good enough to play another one. That would have been a victory.

Sullivan, though, wound up playing 41 games this season and had produced 10 goals and 19 assists entering Friday. He became a major player for the Predators in the second half, especially on the power play. He played more than 18 minutes a game to win his career back.

Runner-up: Martin Havlat, Chicago

Defenseman of the Year: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit -- It's possible that Mike Green takes over Lidstrom's reign as the best defensemen in the League by winning the Norris Trophy this season, but the 38-year-old Swede is still the best defensemen in the Central Division and one of the best in the NHL.

Lidstrom has put together another solid season for the division's best team, ranking in the top 10 among defensemen in just about every major category entering the weekend.

Lidstrom was fourth among defensemen with 59 points entering Friday. He is a plus-33, which tied him with Boston's Dennis Wideman for first among blueliners. His 16 goals were the fifth most among defensemen and his 43 assists put him at No. 4. He has 33 power-play points, which were the third most among the League's defensemen on Friday.

Runner-up: Duncan Keith, Chicago

Goaltender of the Year: Steve Mason, Columbus -- This is why Mason is also the Rookie of the Year, not only in this division but probably in the entire League. He beat out every goalie in the division, including Detroit's Chris Osgood, Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet from Chicago, Nashville's Rinne and the Blues' Mason.

The Jackets' may not have clinched their first playoff berth in franchise history without him. Mason has brought stability to the back end and his consistently strong play allows everyone in front of him to play with confidence. As a result, the Jackets are one of the best defensive teams in the League.

Runner-up: Chris Mason, St. Louis

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