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Three Periods: Crosby MVP quandary; Rangers running out of time; Mason's surprise; Shark watch

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Sidney Crosby’s MVP chances; Rangers’ lack of desperation on the bubble; Steve Mason’s calm and confidence in an unlikely place; NHL and NHLPA’s partnership with You Can Play; plus, Sharks’ speed, Habs’ slide and Preds’ busy summer.

FIRST PERIOD: The BPITW might not be the MVP this season

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Sidney Crosby's MVP charge was derailed by a broken jaw. (Reuters)

Sidney Crosby is the best player in the world.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain reaffirmed that this season. After playing only 28 games in more than two years because of concussion problems and a lockout, he came back and separated himself from his peers the same way he did before he was injured. When he got hurt again, suffering a broken jaw March 30, it only bolstered his status as the BPITW.

Crosby still had a three-point lead in the NHL scoring race with 56 points entering Thursday night, even though he hadn’t played in more than 2-1/2 weeks, even though he had missed eight games. (That counts the game in which he took an errant slapshot in the mouth, because he went down on his first shift.) No one else was close to his points per game rate of 1.56, no matter how small the sample size. Amazing. The players should give him the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL's most outstanding player.

But should Crosby win the Hart Trophy?

The award goes to the player “adjudged to be the most valuable to his team” by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. How each voter judges that is subjective, which is why there are many voters spread across each of the NHL’s 30 cities to smooth out the results.

[Related: Capitals coach says Alex Ovechkin is 'absolutely' the NHL's MVP]

The best player is often the most valuable to his team. The Hart Trophy can go to a player on a great team because his value makes that team great. Crosby has been atop my weekly Puck Daddy ballot, even after his broken jaw. If he wins the Hart for the second time in his career, he will be deserving – even if he ends up stuck on 36 games, three-quarters of the shortened season.

But for the first time in my mind, he might not be the most deserving because of the circumstances. My ultimate question when considering which player is most valuable to his team is this: Where would his team be without him? It’s still subjective. But it weighs more to me the tighter the race is, and rarely does it apply as well as it does in this situation.

It isn’t Crosby’s fault he got hurt and that he plays for the Penguins. Had he stayed healthy, he almost certainly would have won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring champion and the Hart, maybe in a landslide vote. But he did get hurt, and that has allowed us to see the effect of his absence, and it has happened when shorter spans are more significant because the season is 48 games instead of 82.

The Penguins won the game in which he was injured. They lost their next two, snapping a 15-game winning streak. They have won five straight since, making them 6-2-0 without him.

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The Penguins have a pile of star players, which works against Crosby's MVP chances. (Reuters)

They also have gone 13-2-0 this season without Evgeni Malkin, last year’s Hart Trophy winner. They also have gone 8-4-0 without Kris Letang, a candidate to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. They also have gone 8-2-0 without Paul Martin, a key defenseman. They also have won four straight without James Neal, one of the league’s leading goal-scorers.

Clearly they don’t rely on one player, even the BPITW. They can get by without multiple stars.

Without Crosby and Malkin and Martin and Neal on Wednesday night, the Penguins beat the Montreal Canadiens, 6-4. All their goals were scored by players acquired in trades since last season, four of them by players acquired before the trade deadline. Brandon Sutter had two. Brenden Morrow had two for the second straight game. Jarome Iginla and Douglas Murray (!) each had one.

It’s twisted. I know. Crosby has helped turn linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis into top-10 goal-scorers. He is so valuable that he often helps others to receive individual awards, sometimes because of his absence, yet his absence hurts his own argument for MVP.

Malkin won the Hart last year, dominating while Crosby was out. Dan Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2010-11 largely because of how well the Penguins played despite injuries. Ray Shero ought to win the NHL’s General Manager of the Year Award this season for assembling a stacked roster that can withstand so much, and Crosby is part of the reason he could assemble such a stacked roster. Prime example: Iginla said he waived his no-trade clause to go to Pittsburgh to play with Crosby and Malkin, didn’t he?

But while the Penguins have kept winning without Crosby and company, where would the Washington Capitals be without Alex Ovechkin, who had 18 goals in his past 16 games entering Thursday night? Almost certainly not atop the Southeast Division. His run looks a lot like the one Corey Perry went on in 2010-11, carrying the Anaheim Ducks into the playoffs and earning him the Hart.

Where would the Ducks be without Ryan Getzlaf, or the Chicago Blackhawks without Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, or the New York Islanders without John Tavares, or the Columbus Blue Jackets without Sergei Bobrovsky?

Heck, where are the Detroit Red Wings now without Nicklas Lidstrom? Maybe we should finally give him the Hart even though he has retired, now that we can see the effect of his absence and how valuable he was to his team. But Lidstrom had to settle for seven Norrises and the unofficial title as the best defenseman of his generation, never winning an MVP.

And this season, Crosby might have to settle for being the BPITW.

SECOND PERIOD: Rangers are out of excuses and almost out of time

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Brad Richards' Rangers need a big finish to secure a playoff spot. (USA Today)

The New York Rangers entered Thursday night in a precarious position. They held the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They had a game in hand on the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets, but they were tied with the Jets in points and would lose the tiebreaker. They had 17 wins in regulation and overtime, the Jets 20.

“You have to approach every game as a really big game and respect the fact that every point can be the difference – in or out,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “Just tying the game could be the difference. So all we can do right now is work as hard as we can and get ready for the next game. It’s still in our hands.”

The Rangers were my preseason Stanley Cup pick. Their schedule is favorable with all six of their remaining games against teams out of playoff position – two against the Florida Panthers, two against the New Jersey Devils, one each against the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes. Could they squeak in and go on a run like the Los Angeles Kings did last season and the Philadelphia Flyers did in 2009-10?

They should make it, but it’s hard to be confident beyond that. Marian Gaborik won’t get going because he’s gone, off to Columbus via trade. Brad Richards is still struggling badly, with one point in his past six games entering Thursday night. The Rangers bolstered their grit and depth at the deadline, but have the new pieces had enough time to gel? Can they make enough of an impact? Since posting two goals and an assist in his Rangers debut, Ryane Clowe had one point in six games entering Thursday night.

The Rangers are 3-2-1 in their past six. Most alarming, this is a team that often comes out flat and fails to play a 60-minute game. The desperation is not there enough despite the situation and the Rangers’ blue-collar, out-work-you identity.

“It is at times,” said captain Ryan Callahan. “Consistently, I don’t think it’s there.”

If it isn’t there consistently now, when?

THIRD PERIOD: Mason finds calmness and inspires confidence … in Philly?

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After a bumpy tenure in Columbus, Philadelphia is "a breath of fresh air" for Steve Mason. (AP)

The most encouraging part of Steve Mason’s 4-2 victory over the Rangers on Tuesday night wasn’t his 38 saves. It wasn’t how he recovered from a leg cramp and kept playing. It wasn’t even how Jakub Voracek, another former Columbus Blue Jacket, said he was “exactly the same” as he was in 2008-09, when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

It was this:

“He looked really calm out there,” said veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen. “Every time someone looks that calm, it makes us more confident.”

Philadelphia seems like a funny place for a goaltender to find calmness and inspire confidence, especially in his first home game, and Mason seemed like a funny choice for the Flyers when they acquired him at the trade deadline and signed him to a one-year extension.

Philly has destroyed the psyche of goalie after goalie. Mason crumbled in Columbus after winning the Calder. Jackets fans would caution anyone about getting too excited too quickly, because Mason can look brilliant, then anything but.

However, Mason accepted a $1.5 million extension when he would have been due a $3.2 million qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, knowing he might not have gotten that qualifying offer and needs to prove himself. And he’s fine with Philly, despite the potential boos, the pressure from the media and the porous defense of the Flyers.

“The last three years in Columbus have been a drain from a mental standpoint,” Mason said. “There have been so many negatives there. So to come here and get a fresh start with a new organization and new teammates, it’s just a breath of fresh air. I’m really looking forward to it and savoring it.”

Mason is athletic and an active puck-handler. He can break up plays behind the net. But the key to his success in Philly might be keeping it simple. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese is already working with him on staying farther back in the crease, taking advantage of his 6-foot-4 frame, playing the percentages, letting the game come to him. In his first four games with the Flyers – a 20-minute relief appearance and three starts – he went 1-2-0, but with a 1.82 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.

“So far,” Mason said, “it’s paying off.”

OVERTIME: How the culture is changing – and needs to change – in sports

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Tommy Wingels (L) says You Can Play's message is spreading throughout the NHL. (USA Today)

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association made a grand gesture last week when they announced a partnership with the You Can Play Project, the organization dedicated to equality, respect and safety for athletes without regard to sexual orientation. It was ground-breaking. It was important.

But the little gestures – in private, away from the spotlight – are what made it possible and ultimately will determine its effectiveness. San Jose Sharks center Tommy Wingels said players have become more aware of mindless, offensive language at home, in the dressing room and on the ice. They self-police.

“Things they may have said in the past aren’t said anymore,” Wingels said. “It just takes a friendly reminder or to be talked to, and that’s what this project is all about – awareness, creating that safe environment for everyone.”

Wingels is on the advisory board of the You Can Play Project. He played at Miami University when Brendan Burke was a student manager for the hockey team and came out as gay, appearing on television with his father, NHL executive Brian Burke. Brendan died in a car accident in 2010, and You Can Play was co-founded by his brother Patrick, a Flyers scout, to carry on his legacy.

So it is not surprising that teammates watch their mouths around Wingels, knowing how he feels, and it is not surprising that he has issued friendly reminders himself. But that’s where progress starts. Wingels said he lived with a teammate the past couple of years and talked to him a couple of times. Now that player is with another organization.

“I get texts from him all the time saying, ‘I’ve talked to guys on my team about it,’ ” Wingels said. “When he tells me he’s actively speaking about it on his team, I think that shows how it spreads. That’s how it really is. Word of mouth. Guys feel comfortable. It should be an open issue. …

“It’s just, ‘Hey, do you mean what you’re saying? Obviously you don’t.’ People are smart about it. When you bring it up, they’re cognizant. ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to say that. I can say something else.’ You don’t have to remind them more than once. They know that this needs to be a safe environment for everyone. We all love the sport.”

How far is the NHL from seeing an active player come out? Two years ago, Mark Tewksbury, a gay Olympic swimming champion, told the Ottawa Sun he had counseled two gay men who were playing in the NHL – one who was prepared to come out but later changed his mind.

“Patrick thinks it’s pretty soon,” Wingels said. “I’m pretty new to this, but I think the change in sports culture in general is getting to the point where an athlete can feel comfortable. I really think the support would be there from teammates and from people around the league. It’s tough to put a date on it. We could see it happen in the near future.”

SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL

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Carey Price has wobbled down the stretch, but it's not cause for concern. (USA Today)

— Speed was a weakness for the Sharks. Then they traded Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray, while adding Raffi Torres and moving others into new roles. You can see the difference. “We’re playing with a little more speed, a little more tempo,” said coach Todd McLellan. “We’re getting pucks up the ice a little bit quicker. We’re spending less time in our zone, more time in the other team’s zone. I’m not sure if that’s completely due to the change as far as personnel or the change in mindset that we need to play a certain way.”

— One Shark who still needs to speed up is Martin Havlat. To be fair, groin and hamstring injuries have slowed him. But he entered Thursday night with only five goals and 13 points in 36 games – zero points in his last seven games. “I’m not sure we’re going to see him flying up and down the ice and going 100 miles an hour, but he’s a calculating player,” McLellan said. “When he’s handling the puck and creating for other people, then he’s very effective.” He hasn’t been doing that nearly enough.

— Why the Montreal Canadiens should not be concerned: Though they entered Thursday night having lost four of their last five – having allowed 18 goals in three games – they were due for a correction. This team was not supposed to make the playoffs this season, let alone win its division. Carey Price has struggled in goal, Josh Gorges is making mistakes, and you can be confident that will not continue over the long term. The kids have bright futures.

— Why the Habs should be concerned: This team is still far too easy to play against at times. Marc Bergevin has made many great moves in his first season as a general manager, but so did Steve Yzerman in his first season as the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and now look. The job never ends. Bergevin still needs more size, grit and defense.

— Keep an eye on the Nashville Predators. They made bold moves and went for it last season, only to flame out in the second round. They lost Ryan Suter last summer and were forced to match a massive offer sheet to keep Shea Weber. Now they’re going to miss the playoffs for only the second time in nine seasons. But they have a good core. They will have space when others will be squeezed with the salary cap coming down next season. And they still have big ambitions. Coach Barry Trotz told reporters the Preds need to have a “very busy summer” to fill holes and he knows GM David Poile has “a game plan for that.” Hmm…

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