On the NHL's elite teams, no single individual means more these days than Alex Ovechkin does to the Washington Capitals.
|Alex Ovechkin again leads the Capitals into a higher gear. (US Presswire)|
And if that left any doubt about his true impact on Washington's success, it should have ended earlier this season when the Capitals got off to a listless start, going 4-4 in the first month.
Ovechkin, preoccupied with the illness of his grandfather, managed only two goals and three assists then and Washington's overall play was hardly inspired. But after a quick visit back to Russia at the end of October, Ovechkin has been focused and driven; he has scored 25 goals and picked up 48 points in 31 games since. The Caps have gone 23-7-3 in that span and are running away with the Southeast Division.
Ovechkin is tied for the league lead in goals, and since November, he has more points than league scoring leader Evgeni Malkin. Meanwhile the Capitals -- the hottest team as the NHL heads for its schedule's midpoint this weekend -- are riding a seven-game winning streak and getting into position to challenge the Bruins for the Eastern Conference crown.
There have been several other players worthy of Hart consideration thus far, including Boston's Marc Savard, San Jose's Joe Thornton, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and New Jersey's Zach Parise. But none are the difference-makers Ovechkin is.
Here are our other midseason choices for major awards:
Vezina (Top goalie)
|Niklas Backstrom has been one of Minnesota's best players so far. (Getty Images)|
Norris (Top defenseman)
Dan Boyle was given the shaft when Tampa Bay traded him to San Jose last summer, but things have worked out better than anyone could have expected for him with the Sharks, who lead the league standings. Boyle's ability to move the puck has added a critical dimension to San Jose's attack. And it doesn't hurt that Boyle has put up more points than any defenseman so far.
Calder (Top rookie)
|Steve Mason leads in save percentage and goals-against average. (Getty Images)|
Selke (Defensive forward)
Philadelphia's young captain Mike Richards has quickly turned into one of the NHL's top leaders, and is an excellent two-way forward to boot. He's a key reason the injury-riddled Flyers have managed to overcome a bad start and get into the Atlantic Division title race. Richards is in the league's top 15 in scoring and plus-minus ratings, and can handle a shutdown role as effectively as an offensive one.
The offseason changes made by the Bruins didn't excite anyone, but they obviously gave Claude Julien the tools he needed to turn Boston into one of the league's best teams. And out of nowhere it seemed. After going to the playoffs in his first season, Julien has gotten the B's to buy into his system even more now. Boston has rarely taken a night off, and has already basically locked up the Northeast Division. Julien's team leads the East overall and the league in goals for, is second in goals against and tied for the most wins in the NHL.
Runners-up: Joel Quenneville, Mike Keenan
Lady Byng (Sportsmanship)
|Martin St. Louis is one of the few positives in Tampa Bay this season. (Getty Images)|
This is the equivalent of a comeback award, but in the case of Vancouver's Kyle Wellwood, perseverance is the key. His hyped career went nowhere in Toronto and didn't seem any more promising after the Canucks grabbed him on waivers in June. Wellwood struggled early this season in Vancouver and was headed for the minors, but was kept around because of injuries. Good thing too because Wellwood is second on the team in goals and now should be playing with Mats Sundin for a while.