HARD HITS: The Hart Race nobody wants to acknowledge


Last night in a big 3-2 win over the Jets, Oilers center Leon Draisaitl scored twice and picked up an assist to help move Edmonton into second place in the Pacific Division. The power play goal he scored in the first period allowed him to become the first player to reach 100 points for the season.

With three points including his 38th and 39th goal along with his 62nd assist, Draisaitl leads the league in scoring with 102 points. His 10 game-winners are tied with Bruins power forward David Pastrnak for tops in the league. Pastrnak got his NHL-leading 47th goal in a Bruins 4-0 shutout at the Islanders to spoil Butch Goring day. He ranks second in scoring with 91 points (47-44-91). Nobody has more power play goals (19) with Draisaitl’s 15 second best.

Connor McDavid picked up two assists on both Draisaitl power play goals yesterday. The Oilers superstar is up to 58 assists along with 31 goals to give him 89 points in 59 games. The 58 helpers rank second behind Draisaitl. Third in scoring despite missing six games, the former MVP ranks second in power play points with 41 (11-30-41). That trails Draisaitl (15-27-42) by one. Pastrnak’s 36 (15-21-36) are third.

Many observers would point to these three players as the front-runners for the Hart Trophy. They’re the three top point getters as Doc Emrick likes to say. All are dynamic talents who make their teams better. The dynamic duo of Draisaitl and McDavid is scary while Pastrnak is featured on the best line that includes the overlooked rat Brad Marchand along with the well respected two-way pivot Patrice Bergeron.

Before you nominate these three for league MVP, Artemi Panarin is fourth in scoring with 88 points (32-56-88) for the Rangers, who are chasing the wildcard. The 32 goals and 88 points are new career highs for the Bread Man, who doesn’t play with a superstar at five-on-five. He’s mostly done it with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast on the second line. Somehow, Panarin leads everyone in even strength points with 67. Twenty-five of his 32 goals are even strength along with 42 of his 56 assists. He’s 7-14-21 on the power play despite playing with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider until he got hurt on Friday.

Signed last summer by the Rangers for a huge salary that has an average cap hit of $11.64 million per season, the 28-year old Russian left wing boasts two point streaks of 10 or more in the same season. With an assist in Friday’s 5-2 loss to the Flyers, it made his current streak 12. Over that span, he’s got five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. While he’s certainly put the biscuit in the basket, perhaps the highlight of his first year on Broadway was the extra effort he gave to make this unreal pass for a Zibanejad rocket to beat the Islanders Tuesday.

The sheer hustle and recognition that he had run out of time due to three back checking Isles, demonstrated how brilliant he is. Not many players would make that play. He’s not only supremely skilled, but smart too. There haven’t been many off nights for Panarin, whose 88 points are 26 better than Zibanejad (62) and 30 more than linemate Strome (58). His plus-35 rating tops all NHL forwards and ranks second behind former Rangers draft pick Ryan Graves (+44).

Panarin deserves to be included in the Hart discussion. He’s been dominant for a team that wasn’t expected to make the playoffs. They might still not. Injuries to Igor Shesterkin and Kreider threaten to spoil a great run. The Rangers enter today’s afternoon return match against the Flyers two points behind Columbus for the second wildcard. They’re at 74 points with 18 games remaining on a tough schedule that includes one more home game versus the Flyers along with three big match-ups against the suddenly slumping Pens. It will not be easy to beat out the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Panthers.

Without Panarin, it wouldn’t be possible. He doesn’t rely on the Rangers top center Zibanejad, who’s over a point-per-game. However, they should see more time together down the stretch with Kreider out due to a fractured foot. Maybe they can create more magic together like the huge tying goal Zibanejad scored from Panarin to spark a four goal third period comeback at Montreal on Thursday.

For now at least, the Bread Man will stay with Strome and Fast on the second line at today’s start. For how well he’s played overall, it says here that he merits serious consideration for MVP. A more complete player than scoring machines Draisaitl or McDavid, if he can get this team in, it would be like what Taylor Hall did for the Devils.

We’ll see what happens in the final month plus.

Body Checks:

It comes as no surprise that David Quinn will go to Henrik Lundqvist for today’s important game. It’ll mark his first start since Feb. 3. With Alex Georgiev having worked extremely hard the last three starts over four days, it makes sense to go to the proud veteran. A day from turning 38 tomorrow, let’s see if Lundqvist can turn back the clock and deliver in front of what should be a supportive home crowd at noon.

When both Quinn and Tony DeAngelo point out that Adam Fox is overlooked for the Calder due to less points than Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar, they’re right. Fox has a plus-21 to go with his 35 points (7-28-35) while forming great chemistry with rookie partner Ryan Lindgren. Maybe he won’t be among the three candidates which could also feature Hawks sniper Dominik Kubalik. But Fox is a complete player. He could be special.

The trade for Jean-Gabriel Pageau was a good one by GM Lou Lamoriello for the Islanders. Pageau already has two goals in three games. He improves the Isles center depth that includes Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas once he returns. But while Pageau is a solid addition, the Islanders are still struggling to score goals. It’ll come down to Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier and the struggling Josh Bailey. It can’t just be about the centers with Nelson pacing them with 23 goals and Pageau, who is more finisher than playmaker.

Barzal has a tendency to hold onto the puck too much and over pass causing turnovers. He hasn’t been scoring much. A complaint we’ve started to see from Islander fans. A great skater and pass first center, he needs to shoot the puck more. He has no goals in his last 13.

The Stars and Blues played another excellent game last night that was reminiscent of their seven game second round series last year. John Klingberg forced overtime with 18 seconds left in regulation. Following a good overtime, it went to a shootout where Ryan O’Reilly got the only goal in the shootout to give St. Louis the win. They look pretty tough without Vladimir Tarasenko, who could be their big pickup once April hits.

With the Blues, Avalanche and Stars all in the same division, it’s a shame. Only one will advance out of the Central into the Western Conference Final. Meanwhile, you have the Golden Knights thanks to an eight-game winning streak a couple up on the Oilers for the Pacific with the Canucks third. Then it’s the Flames and Coyotes hanging around in the crazy playoff race that includes the Jets, Predators and Wild. The format needs to be changed.

Tough loss for the Lightning losing captain Steven Stamkos for six to eight weeks. That means they’ll likely have to get through the first round without him. With Nikita Kucherov back in MVP form, Brayden Point quietly having a big second half and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, they should still advance. But it’s looking like they’ll finish second behind the Bruins, who should have home ice for the postseason.

I like the additions of Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie for Boston. Both should fit in well. Especially Ritchie, who plays the no nonsense physical style Bruins fans appreciate. Tuukka Rask should win his second Vezina. Charlie McAvoy remains one of the best kept secrets defensively. Charlie Coyle is a handful. They’ll be a tough out.

Can the Leafs continue to win games despite not being equipped defensively? The offense that featured 45 goal man Auston Matthews and the more consistent William Nylander should continue to produce.

Another blown third period lead by the Canadiens last night. They led the Hurricanes 3-0, but once they scored in the second period, it spelled trouble. Sure enough, Carolina rallied for two in the third including a clutch game-tying redirect from Justin Williams. That earned them a point in a 4-3 overtime loss. Jeff Petry won it for the Habs. Still, isn’t it about time Montreal cleans house? Does GM Marc Bergevin have a job for life due to two trades? At least Claude Julien finally played backup Charlie Lindgren. He got the Carey Price experience. Yes, he’s the brother of the Rangers’ Ryan Lindgren.

I don’t see why NBC has these early noon starts. It’s a inconvenience for fans who go. But whatever.

The Caps don’t look to have the goaltending to go far unless Ilya Samsonov supplants Braden Holtby, who’s been unsteady. The Pens are very strange. Can the Flyers make a run led by Carter Hart?

David Ayres is a big hero in the hockey community for coming in to relieve Carolina duo James Reimer and Petr Mrazek in a unreal Canes win at Toronto. His team he practices with while working for the Marlies as a Zamboni rider. But the NHL can’t acknowledge how good a story this is. It doesn’t fit the narrative. A 42-year old local became the most popular hockey player due to being an emergency goalie that won a game. He went on big shows and became a celebrity as well as a hero in Carolina. Only the NHL would not like this story.

Mackenzie Blackwood is an excellent goalie for the Devils despite being on a bad team.

Jack Eichel is elite on the Sabres, who remain mediocre. Get him some help.

I am not sure how you lose at the Ducks and then get shutout by the Sharks and Martin Jones as the Pens just did. This is all too confusing. They lost all three games in California including to the Kings, who compete hard for Todd McLellan. It’s a strange game.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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