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Weekes on the Web

Friday Four: Breaking down Hart Trophy race

NHL Network's Kevin Weekes also discusses Jets, Devils, Rangers rookie goalie

by Kevin Weekes @kevinweekes / NHL Network Analyst

Each Friday throughout the season Kevin Weekes will bring you his Friday Four. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, or trends that have caught his eye.

 

Hart Trophy Candidates

With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the Stanley Cup Playoff picture is rounding into shape, as is the race for the Hart Trophy for League MVP. At this point, there's five players I'd have to consider in the race.

First is Evgeni Malkin. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward scored his 40th goal of the season on Thursday and ranks second in the League with 89 points, trailing Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning with 91. Malkin has been the best player in the League since Jan. 1, with 26 goals. While Kucherov's scoring has cooled a bit, he still has 34 goals and is definitely the MVP of the Lightning.

Next up is Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils. He has 76 points and a career-high 21 goals and has been the team's best player. He had a point in 26 straight games earlier this season (18 goals, 20 assists) and is all but willing the Devils into the playoffs. Then there's Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, who has been a beast since Matt Duchene was traded to the Ottawa Senators in November. MacKinnon missed time with an injury, but had two goals Thursday in a 4-1 win against the St. Louis Blues and ranks fourth in the League with 85 points. 

Video: NJD@VGK: Hall buries loose puck to extend the lead

Lastly is Blake Wheeler, the captain of the Winnipeg Jets. He leads the League with 60 assists and has tied his career high in points with 78. Winnipeg is nipping on the heels of the Nashville Predators for the top spot in the Central Division and is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

 

Winnipeg Jets

Speaking of Wheeler and the Jets, that's the perfect segue to my next point. They are just firing on all cylinders right now. What a season they've had. Right now, they are eight points behind the Predators for first in the Central Division at 42-19-10, 94 points. They are one win and five points away from tying team highs, both set during the 2014-15 season, the last time they made the playoffs.

Patrik Laine had an assist against the Chicago Blackhawks in a 6-2 win Thursday to set a record for a teenager with points in 14 straight games (16 goals, eight assists). He is second in the NHL in goals with 41 and coach Paul Maurice said he is such a good mix of confidence and humility. 

And goalie Connor Hellebuyck has taken the No. 1 job and run with it. He's 36-11-9 with a 2.35 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and six shutouts. He is definitely in the Vezina Trophy conversation and a big reason the Jets are where they are in the standings.

 

New Jersey Devils

You can't slide into the playoffs, you have to earn it. The Devils are proving they want to rely on themselves to get in with back-to-back road wins against the Nashville Predators (3-2 in a shootout on Saturday) and 8-3 against the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday. They have four more games on the trip including at the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Penguins. It won't be easy, but any points they can pick up will be a plus.

We know about Hall, who has a career high in goals (31) and is an MVP candidate as I said earlier. But it's also been the role players. The Brian Boyles, the Travis Zajacs, the Andy Greenes. Plus the rookies. Nico Hischier and Will Butcher have made the jump to the NHL seem effortless. Jesper Bratt, Brian Gibbons and newcomer Michael Grabner give this Devils team an element of speed that we aren't used to seeing from them.

Although Cory Schneider has struggled -- he has lost his past eight starts and hasn't won since December -- Keith Kinkaid has gotten the job done. He's won some big games and has earned playing time, even with Schneider healthy. Let's see how the Devils use these two down the stretch, and in the playoffs if they make it there.

Video: Mike Rupp recaps the Devils' 8-3 win over Vegas

 

Alexandar Georgiev

With the New York Rangers out of the playoff picture, they've given young guys more playing time. That includes in net where Georgiev, a 22-year-old rookie, has made five starts this season, including their past two games. He's very calm and smooth, and give Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire tons of credit for working with him. This isn't a guy who was considered a notable prospect but he's 3-2-0 with a .929 save percentage this season.

I saw him up close against the Penguins on Wednesday. Georgiev was composed and didn't chase the game. He did his job making 37 saves and the Rangers came back for a 4-3 victory in overtime. It'll be interesting to see if he's part of the plan next year. Backup Ondrej Pavelec, who is injured, can become an unrestricted free agent at season's end.

 
HONORABLE MENTIONS

Congrats to Alex Ovechkin on his 600th NHL goal. One of the best ever to lace them up. I had a nice interview with him to reflect on his career.

Video: Alex Ovechkin on his journey to 600 NHL goals

He and Marc-Andre Fleury, who had his 400th NHL win earlier this week against the Philadelphia Flyers, are both heading for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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