It's been a good season for great players. And that presents a challenge to the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which will be casting ballots for the Hart Trophy. The writers, who vote at the end of the regular season, will consider a dozen legit candidates before making a final decision.
And while strong second-half performances by the Sharks' Joe Thornton and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist won't be ignored, we figure it will come down to these fantastic four. Here's the case for each.
Sidney Crosby, C, Penguins
The 19-year-old Penguins phenom continues to live up to the Great (One) hype. In March, he became the youngest player in NHL history to reach 200 career points. This season, Crosby leads the league with 108; his 1.52 ppg is also tops on the circuit. But it's more than stats that makes him the favorite. "Crosby does whatever it takes to win," says Leafs scout Craig Button. "It's one thing to talk about it and another to do it. His game is about winning." That attitude has propelled the Pens to their first playoff appearance since 2001.
Martin Brodeur, G, Devils
The Hart is about the only major award Brodeur doesn't have in his trophy case. At 34, he might get it. Despite playing behind a weaker-than-usual Devils D, Brodeur is enjoying arguably the best season of his career. He leads all goalies with 12 shutouts (a personal best), 2,042 saves and 72 appearances. He also stood out among the league's leaders with 43 wins, a 2.22 GAA and a .922 SP. How does Brodeur remain at the top of his game? "It's his passion," says puck-stopping Flyers legend Bernie Parent.
Vincent Lecavalier, C, Lightning
The transformation in Tampa's flashy pivot has been dramatic. "He seems more mature and more confident," says one Eastern Conference GM. "More of a complete player." A very productive player, as well. Skating on a line with 2004 Hart winner Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier has netted a league-leading, career-best 49 goals and set a single-season franchise mark for points. Gritty ones, too: On the road, where some stars shrink, Lecavalier has been strong, putting up 57 points -- more than any other skater.
Roberto Luongo, G, Canucks
When Canucks GM Dave Nonis traded for Luongo last June, he hoped he'd solved the club's long-standing goaltending woes. He hoped right. Nonis' new goalie has been brilliant in Vancouver, keying a major turnaround for the team. "Luongo has been a pillar of strength for them," Button says. "He's provided stability, and it reflects in their record." In 69 games, Luongo has posted a career-high 43 wins, a 2.27 GAA and a .922 SP. The stopper hopes to carry his strong play into his first postseason.