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Toews is the toast of 2010

As a banner year for hockey comes to a close, Three Periods selects the NHL’s three stars of 2010.

FIRST PERIOD

First star: Jonathan Toews(notes), Chicago Blackhawks

For Canadians, the lasting image of 2010 will be Sidney Crosby(notes) screaming for the puck and sneaking it past American goaltender Ryan Miller(notes) at the Vancouver Olympics. It was Crosby who scored the golden goal, lifting Team Canada to a dramatic, 3-2 overtime victory over the United States. It was Crosby who scored Canada’s biggest goal since Paul Henderson’s in the final game of the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union. It was Crosby who kept Canada’s claim to superiority in the sport, perhaps more significant to the nation’s self-esteem than ever before with the Games on home ice.

But it was Toews, not Crosby, who was named the best forward in the Olympics. And it was Toews, not Crosby, who led his team to the Stanley Cup and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL playoffs’ most valuable player. When your teams win the two most important tournaments of the year – and you’re the top player in both of those tournaments – that makes you first star.

The year has not ended well for Toews and the Blackhawks. Toews suffered a shoulder injury Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues and is expected to miss two weeks. The ’Hawks – thinned by injuries much of this season, after losing half their Cup team in the off-season because of salary-cap constraints – cling to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

But Toews will be back, and so will the ’Hawks. Already at 22, Toews, a.k.a. Captain Serious, has established himself as a quiet, strong leader in the style of Joe Sakic(notes) and Steve Yzerman, and he is still surrounded by the core that won the Cup. Toews showed in 2010 the kind of force he can be for years to come.

SECOND PERIOD

Second star: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

The golden goal added to the legend of Crosby, the kind of superstar who not only puts up points, but steps up at the immortal moments. But otherwise, the first half of the year was a period of relative – stress on relative – disappointment for him.

His Olympic performance wasn’t impressive overall. The Penguins took a step back in the playoffs for the first time in his career, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. Even though his 51 goals tied for the NHL lead, even though his 109 points trailed the league leader by only three, even though he did it with less help than others, he didn’t win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player for the third year in a row.

Crosby had raised the bar so ridiculously high for himself, everyone had to realize that he even he couldn’t reach it all the time, every year. Some started to move on to the next hot thing in the best-player debate, elevating the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos(notes) over Crosby and his usual foil, the Washington CapitalsAlex Ovechkin(notes).

And what has Crosby done since? The 23-year-old has raised the bar even higher for himself and reclaimed the title of best player in the world. He racked up 26 goals and 24 assists during a 25-game point streak that was snapped Wednesday night against the New York Islanders – the NHL’s longest point streak since the early 1990s, before the dawn of the Dead Puck Era. He leads the league in scoring with 65 points – 13 more than the next-best, Stamkos – and the Penguins lead the league in the standings with 53 points. He’s the runaway favorite for the Hart, and the Penguins remain top Cup contenders.

All this has come while the NHL has been leaning on Crosby to sell the game, with the Pens and Caps starring in an HBO reality series leading up to Saturday’s Winter Classic, the league’s annual outdoor showcase. Now, if only Crosby had the power to hold off the rain.

THIRD PERIOD

Third star: Henrik Sedin(notes), Vancouver Canucks

This star should be shared by Henrik and his identical twin, Daniel. The brothers look the same on the street and the stat sheet. But for the Sedins to receive the recognition bestowed upon other individuals, one of them had to stand out as an individual.

Henrik won the Hart – and was later named captain of the Canucks – largely because Daniel missed 19 games last season because of a broken foot. Henrik carried on during Daniel’s absence, proving – to both brothers themselves, plus a lot of doubters – that one could play well without the other. When Daniel returned, he was hungry, having missed hockey, and both had more confidence. They played the best hockey of their careers.

The Sedins produced at virtually an identical pace over the course of the season – 1.35 points per game for Daniel, 1.36 for Henrik. Had both played 82 games, they might have been within a couple points and split votes for the Hart, leaving the award outside the family. But because of Daniel’s injury, Henrik had the opportunity to separate himself – and themselves, by extension.

Now they’re both back in the top five in scoring this season – Henrik fourth with 47 points, Daniel fifth with 45. The question remains whether the Sedins can lead the Canucks to the Cup, but no one calls them snide names like “The Sisters” anymore.

OVERTIME

First honorable mention: Jaroslav Halak(notes), Montreal Canadiens/St. Louis Blues

Halak was the hero of the playoffs. He led the Habs to back-to-back upsets and a spot in the Eastern Conference final, their best run since they won the Cup in 1993. In the first round, he stoned the Capitals, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team. In the second, he stopped the Penguins, the defending Cup champs.

Habs fans were unhappy when general manager Pierre Gauthier traded Halak, a pending restricted free agent, to the Blues for two prospects and handed the starting job to Carey Price(notes), a 2005 first-round pick who had faltered.

Price won over the fans with a strong start. Despite recent struggles, he ranks second in wins (19), third in shutouts (four), fourth in goals-against average (2.27) and fifth in save percentage (.923). Halak trails Price in all categories but shutouts (four). But come playoff time, if you’re on the other end of the ice from Halak, how would you feel?

SHOOTOUT

Other honorable mentions:

•Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: He already has surpassed the 100-goal milestone – with 29 this season, he ranks behind only Crosby and has 103 in his career – and he doesn’t turn 21 until Feb. 7. Veteran linemate Martin St. Louis(notes) ranks alongside him in scoring and deserves his share of credit.

•Dustin Byfuglien, Chicago Blackhawks/Atlanta Thrashers: Perhaps the most amazing story of the season. Byfuglien went from a force at forward in a Cup run, to a salary-cap casualty in Chicago, to a leading Norris Trophy candidate in Atlanta. Back to his natural position, Byfuglien leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 38 points. Partner Tobias Enstrom(notes) has helped him make the transition.

•The Philadelphia Flyers: They made the playoffs by beating the New York Rangers in a shootout on the final day of the regular season. They rallied from a 3-0 deficit – and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 – to beat the Boston Bruins in the second round. Then they came within two victories of the Cup. One of the most impressive runs in history by a team that didn’t win it all.

•Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres: All he did was backstop the Americans to silver at the Olympics – and an anything-can-happen overtime in the gold-medal game at that – and win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender.

•Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins: The 2009 Vezina winner could be the 2011 Vezina winner, leading the league by large margins in goals-against average (1.73) and save percentage (.947). He’s also tied for the lead in shutouts (five) and tied for third in wins (18).

•Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Ovechkin trails Crosby by 23 points in the scoring race entering the Winter Classic. But he and Crosby tied for second last season with 109 points, he’s still tied with the Detroit Red WingsHenrik Zetterberg(notes) for sixth in the league with 42 points now, and this season isn’t supposed to be about numbers for him, anyway – or even HBO or the Classic. It’s supposed to be about the Cup. Here’s looking forward to 2011.

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