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You Gotta Have Hart: Chicago's Toews emerges from pack as leading MVP candidate

Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews (19) takes over the puck after New York Islanders' Brian Rolston (11) falls to the ice during overtime in an NHL hockey game on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

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Chicago Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews (19) takes over the puck after New York Islanders' Brian Rolston (11) falls to the ice during overtime in an NHL hockey game on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Jonathan Toews has won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold.

Only 23, the Chicago Blackhawks captain even has a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP on his shelf, staking his claim as one of the top young stars in the NHL.

All that's missing is the one piece of hardware that stamps him as the best in the game at any age: the Hart Trophy.

This could be the season Toews, the six-foot-two, 208-pound forward, is recognized as the NHL MVP for his play in leading the Blackhawks to the top of the Western Conference entering Wednesday night's games. He's in the thick of the scoring race with 19 goals and 36 points and, even with a talented core that includes Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, has emerged as the leading MVP candidate because of his two-way playmaking and game-changing scoring.

Toews is the mid-December Around The Rinks frontrunner for the NHL's top trophy because of his stellar play, but, also because former winners such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Anaheim's Corey Perry have had their seasons derailed by injury, slump or a bad team.

Crosby, the 2006-07 winner, has played in only eight games and has been out since Dec. 5 because of a recurrence of concussion-like symptoms. Ovechkin followed Crosby and won the next two MVP awards, but has a pedestrian (for him) 23 points and the Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau after a slow start. Perry was the surprise winner last season as he surged to the goal title, scoring 19 times in his final 16 games. The Ducks have only nine wins this season, and a repeat bid from Perry is as unlikely as his team making the playoffs.

But a look around the league entering Wednesday's games shows there are plenty of players that hope to overtake Toews and win the award at the end of the season.

—PHIL KESSEL, TORONTO: How would the ex-Bruin have looked in a Boston uniform during last season's Stanley Cup run? The Maple Leafs don't care, and they're glad to have the right-winger in the lineup. Kessel leads the NHL with 39 points, is second in goals with 20 and has formed the most potent 1-2 scoring punch in the league with Joffrey Lupul. All that scoring hasn't lifted the Maple Leafs near the top of the East. They're in seventh place and that kind of finish may not help Kessel's bid. Kessel does hold the overall lead in fan balloting for the all-star game. He told reporters that teams are focused more on stopping him and his line as their production skyrockets. "We're trying to find ways around that," he said. "But it's been tougher than it was at the start of the season. They're playing us pretty tight and it makes it harder on us, it really does."

—SEDIN-SEDIN, VANCOUVER: Take your pick between Henrik Sedin or his twin brother Daniel, both starring for the Vancouver Canucks. Daniel led the league in scoring with 104 points (41 goals, 63 assists) last season and appeared the favourite to win the MVP until he was upset by Perry. Henrik won the award two seasons ago and they were trying to become the first brothers to win the Hart in consecutive years. How does twice in three seasons sound?

Daniel's 38 points are one behind his brother, but he has the big edge in goals (13-9) and his playmaking has the Canucks only four points behind Chicago for the best team in the West. With Henrik already boasting one Hart Trophy, perhaps a strong burst down the stretch could propel Daniel to his first MVP.

—TIM THOMAS, BOSTON: He's already the best goalie in the league. With each shutout, Thomas is making his case to earn the honour as best player in the league. No goalie has won the Hart since Montreal's Jose Theodore in 2002. But Thomas has carried over his sizzling 16-win post-season that led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup trophy into this year, where he's 16-5 with four shutouts and a sparkling 1.84 GAA. Remember Boston's slow start? No? Well, neither does the rest of the NHL, as the Bruins have shot back to the top of the Eastern Conference with Thomas leading the way—again.

—CLAUDE GIROUX, PHILADELPHIA: The NHL's breakout star of the season, Giroux was leading the league in points until he suffered a concussion two weeks ago after an accidental blow to the head by a teammate. Giroux hasn't played since—though he's day to day and could return soon—and is still tied for the points lead. The Flyers have played well without him—and 2000 winner Chris Pronger, also sidelined with a concussion—and could beout of the running if he misses another 10 games or so this season. He's proved general manager Paul Holmgren made the right call in trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If he can stay healthy, the 2010 all-star should have plenty of chances to win that MVP. "He just really wants it, bad," Flyers centre Danny Briere said. "I just feel fortunate he's on our side."

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