We left off with our top three Hart hopefuls at this juncture of the holiday season. So let's see who are the leading candidates thus far for three other significant awards:
1.Martin Brodeur- Take the two-time Vezina winner and all everything goalie away from an offensively challenged Devils team and they would stink. How does a team which has scored only three more goals than they've allowed (92 GF, 89 GA) have 19 wins and sit in first? The answer is Brodeur, who has accounted for all 19 victories (2nd in NHL) while posting a respectable 2.21 GAA, .920 save percentage and is tied for second with four shutouts.
2.Miikka Kiprusoff- The rating Vezina champ once again is the key to any chance the Flames have making the postseason and going far. He's kind of similar to Brodeur in that he plays on a team which doesn't score much (95 GF) but given up even less (82 GA). Kipper has 16 of their 17 wins and as usual is right up there in GAA (2.17 ranks 5th), save percentage (.926 tied for 3rd) and shutouts (4 ties him for 2nd).
3.Jean-Sebastien Giguere- We're giving the former 2003 Conn Smythe winner the nod over The Dominator for now because he plays on the best team. Many questioned whether Giggy could recapture that special form. Especially after he looked pretty ordinary the last couple of seasons. But this year, the magic has returned. Entering a season uncertain to beat out Ilya Bryzgalov for the No.1 job, Giguere has been splendid thus far. He leads the league with 23 wins while posting a 2.12 GAA (tied 3rd), .926 save percentage (T 3rd) and has a share for second with four blankings. It's hard to ignore.
1.Chris Pronger- Okay, so he plays for the best team and has freaking Scott Niedermayer helping out on another No. 1 pair. But how do you ignore what the former 2000 Hart/Norris winner has done thus far. He paces all blueliners in assists (31), points (38) and his +20 rating ranks third among D. All this while playing more disciplined (28 PIM).
2.Nicklas Lidstrom- Year after year, few players are better at the position than the four-time Norris winner. The 36 year-old Swedish legend is one of the most consistent players of his time. Even age can't seem to get in the way of the type of impact player No.5 continues to be anchoring the Red Wing blueline. His 31 points (9-22-31) rank fourth among D while placing second behind Tom Preissing with a +22 rating. Lidstrom also has seven power play goals and once again has been very disciplined (26 PIM). Can he tie Orr?
3.Scott Niedermayer- I really wanted to put Dion Phaneuf here and maybe by the end of the year, the super second-year soph will be because he means a lot to Calgary. But it's hard to ignore what Niedermayer (6-24-30, +8, 3 PP, 1 GW) continues to bring to Anaheim. He's such a presence on the ice. One of the smoothest skaters, the former 2004 Norris winner just glides out there and can be used so many ways. Defensively he's solid. Offensively he is like an extra attacker roaming whereever he wants. How Randy Carlyle uses him on the power play is terrific. It kind of reminds me of how the Rangers utilized Brian Leetch. The best part about the Ducks' captain is he can get back in an instant. It's really fun to watch.
1.Evgeni Malkin- Everyone knew how much a special talent he was before he came over finally to team up with Sidney Crosby and talented rookie Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh. The size and hands are one thing but the speed in which this talented Russian can make plays in any zone is worth the price of admission. The former '04 second overall pick is special and hasn't disappointed thus far- leading all rookies in goals (17), points (32) and PPG (7) while tying for first with Paul Stastny in game winners (3).
2.Anze Kopitar- While most know who Malkin is, not everyone is aware of how gifted this kid is. The first Slovenian to make the NHL has turned into a steal for the Kings. Somehow 10 GMs passed him up in 2005. Want to know why? Cause his home country had never produced an NHLer. Pretty crappy reasoning. If a player has his talent, it shouldn't matter where they're from. Watching the way this crafty pivot can skate is a thing of art. He's got all the moves and the presence to go with it. It's no wonder he's first among freshmen in helpers (21) and right behind Malkin in scoring (32 points). Kopitar is a top talent who should be marketed playing in LA. But will he?
3.Paul Stastny- I remember watching him play a little in college and leading Denver University to the NCAA championship. I knew he would be a very good player and couldn't understand why the Rangers and a bunch of other teams passed on him in the first round and watched the Avalanche get a steal with the 44th overall pick in 2005. And thus far, Peter Stastny's son hasn't disappointed. Centering the Avs' second line, his 26 points (9-17-26) tie him for third with John-Michael Liles in team scoring. Those 26 points place the smart playmaking center third among rookies. He definitely has a lot of upside.
With the Christmas rankings out of the way, I'm left wondering if Ranger Coach Tom Renney had too much spiked egg nogg for Christmas. Apparently, Renney is not troubled at all by his team's alarming play of late which has resulted in a five-game slide including back-to-back blown third period lead of two-or-more to Florida and Tampa Bay. He still has "faith" and even mentioned the Cup. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. Make no mistake about it. Renney's Blueshirts have issues. They have an inconsistent second-year goalie who's struggling to match last year's amazing season. They have a moody superstar who's not playing like a captain. They have a schizo team D which panics once the opposition scores. They also have zero physicality and no scoring from the third or fourth lines. How can Renney be confident right now? Sure. He doesn't want to say he doesn't have faith because it might make things worse. But come on. If the Rangers don't put out the effort tonight at Nassau Coliseum and come out with a much needed victory, what will the coach say next? That they tried and are on the verge of coming out of this funk? Unless he's applying for a star role in a Dumb and Dumber sequel, Renney needs to right the ship quickly before this morphs into another Ranger debacle from 1997-04.
Hope everyone out there had a very Merry Christmas and got what they wanted. Just a heads up for the diehard puck fans. Center Ice will be airing the Team USA-Germany WJC game at 9 ET/6 PT today. If you want to check out some of the best prospects, it's worth tuning in for.