Trophy Tracker: Vezina Trophy candidates

There are lots of interesting names to kick around when it comes to handicapping the Vezina Trophy race as we hit the end of the calendar year -- some familiar, some not. Here’s a look at our top five plus some honorable mentions.

1. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

A couple of things stand out for us when it comes to the likable Detroit netminder. First, he leads the NHL in the one stat that trumps all others: wins. But beyond his 20 victories, Howard has been one of the busiest goalies in the league, ranking third in minutes played and 10th in shots against. In short, Howard has been a rock for the Wings, especially when they were struggling to find their offensive game, holding the fort with a 1.91 GAA fifth-best in the league.

“He’s been our best player for sure,” Detroit head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com during the Wings’ pre-Christmas western road trip.

The Wings, 12-3-0 in their past 15 games, are three points back of Chicago for the Central Division and Western Conference leads, and the rapidly maturing Howard is a big part of the team’s success.

“We’re playing him a lot. We’re riding him, but he’s young,” said Babcock, joking that Howard, 27, has plenty of time to rest later.

2. Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

What do you say about the defending Vezina and Conn Smythe winner other than that he hasn’t missed a beat? Thomas has 13 wins in his past 15 appearances and ranks second in save percentage and third in GAA. He also is tied for first with four shutouts. The Bruins, meanwhile, look like a team on a repeat mission sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind Chicago for the NHL lead. Thomas and cohort Tuukka Rask have the Bruins atop the league in goals against per game.

3. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The 29-year-old Vezina Trophy runner-up from a year ago continues to earn every cent of his new seven-year contract. He is riding a personal five-game win streak while leading the NHL in saves, appearances and shots against. Rinne appears to have shaken off a rough patch that he and the Predators endured in mid-to-late November and has the Predators back in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. He was named one of the NHL’s stars of the week with a 3-0-0 record and .957 save percentage last week. With all due respect to Norris Trophy hopeful and Preds captain Shea Weber, as Rinne goes, so go the Nashville Predators.

4. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

There are a couple of reasons the New York Rangers remain very much in the hunt for the Atlantic Division crown and the top spot in the Eastern Conference despite injuries that have decimated their blue line. There’s Marian Gaborik, who’s enjoying a bounce-back season with 19 goals, one off the league lead. And there’s The King, netminder Henrik Lundqvist. The young blue line has been rocked by a series of injuries to key members, including Marc Staal, who has yet to play a game this season. Meanwhile, Lundqvist has displayed his veteran leadership in keeping the Rangers more than just afloat. He has a .934 save percentage that ranks fourth in the NHL. Overall, the Rangers are third in the league in goals allowed per game and fifth on the penalty kill. Those are impressive stats that begin and often end with Lundqvist.

5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

In much the same way that Lundqvist has risen to the occasion for the Rangers, Fleury has quietly helped keep the Penguins in the mix at the top of the Eastern Conference despite being rocked by injuries to top players, including captain Sidney Crosby, Norris Trophy hopeful defenseman Kris Letang and at various times Paul Martin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Evgeni Malkin. Fleury had a stretch during which he allowed three or more goals in eight of nine games, but his 17 wins are second in the NHL. He has very much been a stabilizing influence on a team that continues to put up points in spite of a roster lacking many key pieces. He also had a stellar performance in a victory over top-seeded Chicago on Tuesday night.

Honorable mentions: Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues, Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild, Jose Theodore, Florida Panthers, Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks, Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils.