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The Cross- Ice Pass: The “Just Past Halfway” Awards
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Jan 25, 2006 - 2:52:00 AM

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With most teams about to hit the 50-game mark in the 2005-06 season (and this hockey editor admittedly slow on the draw to put together a halfway-point awards column), MOP Squad proudly presents the “Just Past Halfway” Awards. As such, the choices of MOP’s beleaguered hockey editor for the major award categories (plus perhaps a few extras) make up the latest edition of the Cross-Ice Pass. And so, without further suspense, here are the “Just Past Halfway” Awards. All statistics are through games played on Monday, January 23.

Most Valuable Player – Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators

Sure, you could argue that Alfredsson’s got a great supporting cast in Ottawa, who currently sit tied for top spot in the league’s points race. Alfredsson did spend much of the season on a line with Jason Spezza, who remains in the top six in the league in assists despite missing 13 games due to injury, and Dany Heatley, who hasn’t done much except start the season with a 22-game point streak and flirt with the league lead in goals since 2005-06 started. Dominik Hasek in goal, Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden on defense, the list goes on and on in Ottawa. Yet it’s Alfredsson who is the team’s captain, Alfredsson who has ensured a smooth transition to coach Bryan Murray’s new regime, and it was Alfredsson’s rib injury that sent the team into a mini-slide at the start of January. Without him in the lineup, Ottawa went 1-3, were outscored 17 to 9, and lost to Atlanta, Boston and Montreal. Since his return, Alfredsson has had points in all but one game to regain the points lead in Ottawa. His 67 points ties him for second in the league, as does his +31 rating and six game-winning goals, while his four shorthanded goals are tied for first. He’s the best player and guiding light on the league’s best team, and that makes him the league’s MVP.

Runners-up: Jaromir Jagr (New York Rangers), Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals, Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes)

Best Defenseman – Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: much respect and admiration is due for Bryan McCabe for the season he has had. Yet the fact of the matter is that McCabe, who has been injured the last six games, is not the dominating presence, particularly in his own zone, that Nicklas Lidstrom is. It’s true that Lidstrom has four fewer points in six fewer games (45 for Lidstrom vs. 49 for McCabe), that McCabe has more goals (9 vs. 15) and that both have scored a similar amount of points on the power play (33 vs. 31). Yet while no one except Ilya Kovalchuk spends more time per game on the power play than McCabe and his defense partner, Tomas Kaberle, Lidstrom plays against the opposition’s best and has, after a slow start to the season, passed McCabe in average minutes per game and should soon surpass him in points. Lidstrom anchors the league’s fifth-best defense; McCabe and the Leafs rank 23rd. While Chris Pronger has been great defensively and Lubimor Visnovsky has been equally great on offense, this race is all about Lidstrom and McCabe at this point, and Lidstrom thus far edges McCabe out.

Runners-up: Bryan McCabe (Toronto Maple Leafs), Chris Pronger (Edmonton Oilers), Lubimor Visnovsky (Los Angeles Kings)

Best Goaltender: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

To do what Lundqvist has done thus far, coming into the best league in the world as a rookie and putting up the league’s third best goals-against average and save percentage, seems simply unfair. There are goaltenders that have been in this league for over a decade and worked on their game constantly that have never put up the kind of numbers Lundqvist has. A 2.14 GAA. A .927 save percentage. Tied for eighth in the league in wins. Only six losses in 33 games played. At 23 years of age, Lundqvist is already a virtual folk hero among Ranger fans. And through it all, Lundqvist plays on a New York team who’s best defenseman is Michal Rozsival, making his accomplishments all the more impressive (no disrespect to Rozsival, who's having a very good season himself). Consider, too, that Lundqvist's goaltending partner in New York, veteran Kevin Weekes, has managed a mere 3.11 GAA and .887 SP behind the same defense, and Lundqvist's numbers are even more amazing. Lundqvist has helped give a Ranger team who few thought would even make the playoffs a legitimate shot at winning their division; in February, he’ll give a Swedish team that might not otherwise be a contender a legitimate shot at a gold medal.

Runners-up: Dominik Hasek (Ottawa Senators), Manny Fernandez (Minnesota Wild), Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames)

Best Rookie – Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Can there be any doubt that Ovechkin has been truly amazing this season? Leaving his jaw-dropping goals aside (particularly the one from about a week ago where he was flat on his back and still scored against Phoenix’s Brian Boucher, did you see that one?), the sheer numbers he has put up make Ovechkin the top rookie. Currently sitting eighth in points in the entire league and second in goals, Ovechkin also brings a bit of swagger, a bit of attitude, and a lot of charm to his game and his off-ice persona. While the Calder Trophy race was considered a two-man race at the start of the season between Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin has clearly separated himself from Crosby. Ovechkin may get a challenge from New York’s Lundqvist, our pick for top goalie of the first half, but Ovechkin deserves at least some MVP consideration for keeping a Capitals team relatively devoid of talent other than himself out of the league’s basement, while Lundqvist does have the benefit of some talented players in front of him. Ovechkin is clearly the choice for top rookie right now.

Runners-up: Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers), Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Dion Phaneuf (Calgary Flames)

Best Coach – Peter Laviolette, Carolina Hurricanes

There isn’t a bigger surprise in the first half than Carolina being tied with Ottawa for the most points in the league. The ‘Canes have clearly shown that they have more talent than most prognosticators thought when many predicted Carolina wouldn’t even get a sniff of the playoffs (including yours truly. I quote: “Carolina simply isn’t a playoff contender, not without some serious help or an utterly amazing season from Staal.” The last bit about Staal offers some vindication for me, but not much). But no coach managed to set his team up better for the new, offense-encouraged NHL better than Laviolette. While Laviolette has had the benefit of breakout seasons from Eric Staal, Justin Williams, Erik Cole, Frank Kaberle and Martin Gerber, he’s also had to suffer through some serious injuries, particularly on defense and to 2003-04 leading scorer Josef Vasicek, who has played just 15 games and will likely miss most or all of the rest of the season with a knee injury. Yet Laviolette has kept it all together, and the Hurricanes have exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations to be one of the best teams in the league.

Runners-up: Lindy Ruff (Buffalo Sabres), Tom Renney (New York Rangers), Barry Trotz (Nashville Predators)

Best Defensive Forward – Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes

Most people believed that team Canada’s Olympic team needed a faceoff specialist and defensive center to check the opposition’s best line, so it was no surprise that Kris Draper was selected to the team. After all, even though he only has three goals this season, Draper won the league’s Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward in 2004. What is mystifying is that Rod Brind’Amour’s name never came up as a serious candidate for Draper’s defensive forward spot. Brind’Amour was named Carolina’s captain before the season started and has had no small role in their surprising leap to the top of the standings. Playing against the opposition’s best players, Brind’Amour is second in the league in faceoff winning percentage, leads all forwards in average ice time with 24:25 per game (most defensemen don’t play that much; his closest competitor among forwards in the category plays almost a minute and a half less per game), and has 41 points in 44 games. This after a sub-par 2003-04 season in which he had just 12 goals and 38 points all season. At 35, many thought Brind’Amour was on the downside of his career; however, his superb conditioning has allowed him to thrive in his new leadership role with the Hurricanes. Though many have contributed to Carolina’s success this season, the team would be nowhere without Brind’Amour’s excellent two-way play.

Runners-up: Jere Lehtinen (Dallas Stars), Ethan Moreau (Edmonton Oilers), Ian Laperriere (Colorado Avalanche)

Most Surprising Success – Brian Gionta, New Jersey Devils

While any number of players could qualify in this category, such as Carolina’s Eric Staal, Toronto’s Bryan McCabe, Phoenix’s Ladislav Nagy, maybe even Jaromir Jagr, how about that Brian Gionta? Tied for eighth in the league in goals with 28, 49 points in 49 games, second in the league in power play goals with 15, and easily the Devils’ MVP of the first half. All this from a guy barely 5’7 who’s previous career numbers were 21 goals and 29 points (both in 2003-04). Sure, everyone knew Gionta was a quick skater who was responsible in his own end, but who knew he had such great hands? With Patrik Elias back in New Jersey’s lineup, the Devils may have the league’s most dangerous line in Scott Gomez, Gionta and Elias, and with passes from both Gomez and Elias Gionta could conceivably challenge for the league’s scoring title. Not bad for a little guy.

Runners-up: Bryan McCabe (Toronto Maple Leafs), Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes), Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers)

Biggest Disappointment – Early Retirements

Though many an individual player has been disappointing this season, particularly a number of high-profile goaltenders (Jose Theodore, Nikolai Khabibulin, Patrick Lalime, David Aebischer, etc.), and the Pittsburgh Penguins as a whole have been a major disappointment, the biggest disappointment thus far has to be the forced retirement of such greats as Brett Hull, Dave Andreychuk and, as of this afternoon, Mario Lemieux. All three were unable to compete at the level they had in the past, and even though they all deserved to go out with dignity they were all forced, primarily through circumstances beyond their control, to call it quits. Coupled with the retirements before the season started of Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Ron Francis, well, the new NHL lost a lot of greats before it really got going. While all these players were perhaps a little too old to be considered “early” retirements, they’ll all be missed dearly for their contributions to the game of hockey and the classy way in which they carried themselves.

Copyright 2007 - MOP Squad Sports

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