UNIONDALE, N.Y. - For five games, Sidney Crosby and John Tavares have been on opposite sides in the quest to lead their teams to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On Friday, the stars of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders found themselves going head-to-head again: this time to be the NHL MVP.
One day before the teams were set to face off in Game 6 of the first-round, Eastern Conference series, Crosby and Tavares were announced as finalists—along with Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin—for the Hart Trophy.
The voting is already in, so these stars can't campaign on or off the ice to gain support. All three are also in the mix for the Stanley Cup, but either Crosby or Tavares will be eliminated from that chase by the end of the weekend.
"It's a tremendous honour to be recognized, especially with those two guys and what great players they are, and so many other great players that had great seasons," Tavares said. "They've proved to be the best players in the game for a long time. They are still at really young ages, and they keep getting better, as well.
"They are not easy guys to play against each and every night. You see their consistency and what makes them great players. That helps push me to want to become better, knowing I have to compete against those guys. I have to raise the level of my game."
Tavares (2009), Ovechkin (2004) and Crosby (2005) were all chosen No. 1 in the NHL draft. Crosby is the only one to capture the Stanley Cup, and he was the Hart winner in 2007. Ovechkin won the award in 2008 and 2009.
"He's done a lot, came into the league with a lot of pressure," Crosby said of Tavares. "I can relate to what that feels like, knowing there's pressure coming onto his own team. There are similarities but he's his own player. He had a great season and led the way for them and he's definitely gotten better and better each year."
The 22-year-old Tavares, in his fourth NHL season, increased his goal and point totals in each of his first three years. He was on his way to a career year, scoring 28 goals—the third most in the NHL and just three shy of his best output—and 47 points in this 48-game campaign.
The only Islanders player to win the Hart was Bryan Trottier in 1979. Trottier had two other second-place finishes, and Denis Potvin was runner-up once. The team's best recent result was 1993 when Pierre Turgeon was fifth.
Tavares was the key figure in getting the Islanders into the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
"He just keeps getting smarter and more mature, learning what he is capable of in this league," linemate Matt Moulson said. "He just works extremely hard to get better at each area. That's what makes him such a special player.
"He is very deserving. I am sure he probably could've done it with a lot of people on his wing."
Crosby has the upper hand right now, following the Penguins' dominating 4-0 home victory on Thursday that gave Pittsburgh a 3-2 series lead and put the club within one win of the second round. The teams will meet again Saturday night on Long Island. If the Islanders stave off elimination on home ice they will set up a winner-take-all showdown in Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The Penguins and Islanders have alternated wins each game of this series. But the Islanders have absorbed 5-0 and 4-0 losses among their three defeats against Pittsburgh, and they know they will have to be at their best to stay alive.
"If you lose 9-0 or 3-2, for us it's game by game. It's a loss," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We have to reload, we have to refocus, re-energize ourselves—minds and bodies—to get ready.
"We've been in these must-win situations before, and our guys have responded pretty well. We're at home, and hopefully we'll have that barn rocking here again like we had the previous two games to feed off of."
What they haven't shown is an ability to solve Penguins veteran backup goalie Tomas Vokoun, who took over for struggling starter Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5 and posted a shutout.
That was just par for the course for Vokoun this year against the Islanders. Counting the regular season and his performance Thursday, Vokoun is 4-0 with an 0.69 goals-against average and .977 save percentage in five games.
The shutouts came in his last two games, and Vokoun hasn't allowed a goal to the Islanders in 122 minutes, 28 seconds, dating to Josh Bailey's score in the second period on March 22 in New York. He has stopped 129 of 132 shots.
"We didn't have too much success against him in the regular season, but we're playing much better in this series than we did in the regular season," Tavares said.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined to pick a Game 6 starter, but Vokoun is the odds-on favourite to get the nod.
None of the Islanders could explain why they haven't managed to do damage against Vokoun, choosing instead to put the blame on themselves.
"I don't think we challenged him enough," Capuano said. "We had our chances, but for whatever reason we couldn't put the puck in the net. He has played well against us, give him credit, but no matter who is in the opposition's goal ... we've just got to continue what we have to do."
Despite allowing four goals on 27 shots and getting pulled in the third period, Evgeni Nabokov received a vote of confidence from Capuano and was given the starting nod for Game 6.
"It's not too hard to get up for it," Nabokov said. "We'll be ready. (Thursday's) game we were prepared to win. It didn't happen, so now we are prepared to win again."
NOTES: Islanders C Frans Nielsen is questionable for Game 6 because of an undisclosed injury. D Andrew MacDonald will miss the remainder of the playoffs because of a broken left hand—that will require surgery—sustained in Game 4.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.