Why Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist should be a Hart Trophy front-runner

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The decision to give a goaltender the Hart Trophy, like awarding a pitcher the MVP trophy in baseball, rests on whether or not you're a member of one of two camps.

You either believe that goaltenders and pitchers have their individual MVP awards in the Vezina Trophy and Cy Young Award and therefore shouldn't be in consideration for the league MVP; or your definition of "valuable" includes goalies and pitchers, no matter the fact that they don't play every game.

This debate doesn't happen every year, but when it does, both sides truly stick to their beliefs barring a sensational year by a player.

Not every year is there a goaltender worthy of even being thrown into the Hart Trophy mix, but this season Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers isn't just in the conversation, one could easily make the case he's the front-runner.

Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers dominated the Hart talk earlier this season. But both have since slowed their paces a bit allowing Lundqvist and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, who skyrocketed in favorite status with a 12-goal, 16-point January, to move into pole position.

This is the season that Lundqvist and the Rangers have slowly been building toward since his rookie year of 2005-06, which saw 30 wins, a gold medal with Sweden at the Torino Olympics and a playoff appearance after seven years of no postseason berths for the franchise. Since then, King Henrik hasn't posted a season with less than 30 wins and he's been a consistent strength of the Rangers throughout his career.

As the Rangers sit pretty atop the Eastern Conference, Lundqvist has been the backbone of a New York team looking for their first Stanley Cup since 1994. In 42 starts, Lundqvist has posted 27 wins, a 1.77 goals-against average, .941 save-percentage, and seven shutouts.

Only six goaltenders have won the Hart Trophy (Dominik Hasek won it twice), so you better be having a pretty damned good season if you're making hockey writers consider you're more valuable than a skater putting up 40 goals and 100 points.

The last two modern goaltenders to win the MVP — Hasek and Jose Theodore — posted numbers that were tremendous for backstops, but should Lundqvist keep up his pace over the Rangers' final 26 games, he'll blow their stats out of the water.

Here are the Hart Trophy-winning stats of Hasek and Theodore:

1996-97 37 wins, 2.27 GAA, .930 SV%, 5 SO
1997-98 33 wins, 2.09 GAA, .932 SV%, 13 SO

2001-02 30 wins, 2.11 GAA, .931 SV%, 7 SO

There's no reason to believe that the Rangers and Lundqvist will suddenly crash down the Eastern Conference standings, and given the 29-year old's consistency, he has a chance to finish with his first sub-2.00 GAA season and destroy his previous personal best of 2.23 set in 2007-08, and post a career-high save-percentage.

Consider the way the Rangers have taken a strangle-hold of both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, they should have things wrapped up in the near future, meaning Lundqvist will get to rest and stay fresh heading into the postseason.

He's always been a workhorse playing 68, 73, 70, 72, and 70 games in the past five seasons, but the plan since last year has been to give Marty Biron a decent amount of starts. (That plan went off the rails last year when Biron broke a collarbone in February.)

With 26 games left and Lundqvist at 42 starts, he should finish with his lowest number of starts in his career, which is a good thing for both he and the Rangers once April begins. It also means his Hart-worthy numbers have a very good chance of maintaining their ridiculousness, the key factor for a goaltender to be in the MVP mix.

Right now, as the NHL enters the final month and a half of regular season play, the Hart Trophy race is down to Lundqvist and Malkin.

There's still time for someone to break into the competition (Is another Corey Perry second-half surge upon us?), but should Lundqvist's numbers remain as stunning as they are, there's no reason to believe he won't be among the final three heading to Las Vegas at the end of June -- if not becoming the first goalie in a decade to take home the award.

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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