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Iginla is all Hart

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People in Washington and Pittsburgh won't like to hear this, but if the season were to end today, Jarome Iginla is the league's most valuable player.

The Hart Trophy race has never been so hotly contested. The competition is very much a reflection of close races, parity throughout the NHL and certainly a trickle-down effect of what a salary-cap system means to the league overall.

But the 30-year-old Edmonton native, who captains the provincial rival Calgary Flames, is the choice. He may not have as many goals and not as many points as others, but Iginla is the living, breathing, skating definition of the award: the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.

Are there other worthy candidates? You bet. For the first two months it looked like the award could be a battle between Detroit teammates Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

As the season hit the midway point, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk emerged.

Ottawa's trio of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley were worth a look. And after Sidney Crosby went down to injury yet Pittsburgh didn't skip a beat, it was mostly Evgeni Malkin's doing.

Expanding the field, players such as Joe Thornton and Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose, Martin Brodeur of New Jersey and Roberto Luongo of Vancouver all warrant consideration.

But with just less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, it's a three-horse race between Iginla, Ovechkin and Malkin.

Ovechkin is going to produce the most eye-popping numbers. He's running away with the Rocket Richard Trophy with 60 goals, a pace that gives him 65 for the season, and he leads the league with 106 points. Ten of his goals have counted for game-winners. The Capitals have won 37 games. Ovechkin has scored the winner in more than a quarter of their victories.

And more numbers: The 22-year-old third-year star from Moscow has 410 shots on goal, a league-leading figure by far. His 23 minutes of skating per game is second only to Martin St. Louis (24:20) of Tampa Bay. Ovechkin is a plus-19, and despite his aggressive nature away from the puck, he plays with discipline and he's only accrued 34 penalty minutes.

If they gave an award for the most exciting player in the league, the No. 1 player worth the price of admission, it's Ovechkin. He plays with the same passion not only game-to-game, but from shift-to-shift.

What prevents Ovechkin from winning the Hart Trophy? Simple – his Caps failing to reach the postseason. They still have a chance to make it, but they've been on the outside looking in all season. And now they're down to their final six games.

Malkin, meanwhile, might along with goalie Ty Conklin be the biggest reason the Penguins will get into the field of 16. Malkin's brilliance has been most evident during the games in which Crosby has been missing.

Like Ovechkin, Malkin is a young star who hails from Russia. The 21-year-old native of Magnitogorsk has 44 goals and 102 points in 75 games. But in the 26 games without Crosby, Malkin has 20 goals and 45 points. Stop and think about that one. He's produced almost the same number of goals in 26 games (20) without Crosby as Malkin has scored (24) in the 49 with the Penguins' captain present.

That's what is most impressive. Just when you figure opponents can load up with their best defense pairing and their top checkers against Malkin, he produces at a far better clip.

The most important numbers associated with Malkin's accomplishments without Crosby is the fact Pittsburgh has gone 15-7-4 in those 26 games. In other words, the Penguins have earned a greater percentage of points in the games without Crosby in the lineup (1.31-1.20).

So then why is Iginla the MVP? First off, remember that while Canada is plenty passionate about its hockey, and Alberta is very proud of Iginla, Calgary is not that big of a media market. It's not as bad as a Thornton in San Jose or a Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim, but Iginla's games start later and the Flames aren't featured as often on late-night highlight shows as eastern-based teams.

It's the voters' jobs, however, to select members of the Pro Hockey Writers' Association to look past all that and choose who is the most deserving.

Iginla is a fierce leader who is the best money player in his sport. When the game is on the line, Iginla is going to do something to help his team. He is clutch. Saturday night, for example, he scored a natural hat trick when his team was down a goal to put them ahead in a must-have home game against rival and division-leading Minnesota Wild.

Iginla is two goals shy of reaching the 50-goal plateau for the second time in his career. The other time he reached it, he scored 52 goals for the Flames in 2001-02 and finished runner-up in the Hart voting to Jose Theodore, who became only the second goalie since 1962 to win the league's MVP award.

Iginla finished second in 2004, too. St. Louis, of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning, won it. Iginla is on pace for 99 points and will appear in all 82 games for the Flames as long as he doesn't miss one of the last seven. Nine of his 48 goals have been game-winners.

But Iginla's game goes beyond numbers. He's the only captain among the top three candidates. He's tough as nails, a willing combatant if he feels he needs to drop the gloves. He's engaging, inspiring, relentless, the total package.

Oh, and one more thing. He's this year's Hart Trophy winner.

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