- George Johnson, NHL
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The preliminary introductions are mercifully nearing an end. Be patient another week, the good stuff is just about here. After 82 games and a torrid playoff chase down to the wire, the Sweet 16 are just about ready to rock.
Here, then, are the regular-season MVP choices for all of the NHL's 30 teams -- the good, the bad ... and the Islanders.
Ryan Getzlaf, C: And to think, when he was wrapping up his junior career in Calgary, they nicknamed him Getz-loaf; many wondered if he could (or would choose to) lift his game to an acceptable NHL level. Well, three seasons and a Stanley Cup championship later, he's having the last Getz-laugh as the unquestioned offensive leader of the reworked Ducklings, on pace for career highs in goals, points, assists and penalty minutes.
Ilya Kovalchuk, LW: Forty-two snipes, 90 points, 100 more shots than any other Thrasher. No need for further elaboration.
Zdeno Chara, D: We marvel at Marc Savard's way with a pass. We like David Krejci and Phil Kessel a lot. And we love lumpy Tim Thomas, the guy who looks like he should be bagging groceries at Safeway, especially when he takes it upon himself to go after the world's oldest adolescent, Dishonest Aves. But the Bru Crew's rise to the top of the NHL charts starts with the big man at the blue line. Twenty-six minutes a night in every key situation. Championships are won with stud defensemen like this guy.
Ryan Miller, G: With Miller between the pipes, the Sabres are 15 games over break-even and in the playoffs. Without him, they're eight games under. 500 and on the brink of elimination. That ankle injury that cost him a month has cost the Sabres. Dearly.
Miikka Kiprusoff, G: Mighty-mite Michael Cammalleri has put up career numbers and warrants consideration. But in a season when erratic YouTube defenseman Dion Phaneuf has regressed and captain Jarome Iginla has been only sporadically dominating, Kiprusoff, despite sub-Kipper stats, has been the all-everything in Calgary (see Marty Turco, below). Kiprusoff has been in the grill for each one of the Flames' 43 victories. Can anyone outside of the Calgary city limits even name his backup under threat of torture? Didn't think so (P.S.: It's Curtis McElhinney.)
Paul Maurice, coach: Unconventional, but so what? With apologies to goaltender Cam Ward, who's established a franchise record for wins (38) and gone 12-1-2 as Carolina clinched a playoff berth, Maurice has been the real difference in Raleigh. His second stint behind the Canes' bench has produced a 31-17-5 run since Dec. 3 that has lifted them from also-ran status into dangerous postseason threat. See what a fella can accomplish if he just gets out of Toronto?
Duncan Keith, D: Naturally, the Gold Dust Twins, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, get most of the love for the renaissance in the City of Big Shoulders, and Martin Havlat has quietly put in a memorable season, but the nod here goes to the largely unheralded blueliner. Forty-two points, a plus-32 and team-high 25:30 a night. And he's only 25. Team Canada 2010 GM Steve Yzerman, take note.
Ian Laperriere, RW: Ryan Smyth's been a vastly overpaid disappointment, Milan Hejduk shut 'er down as the losses started mounting late and Joe Sakic's been injured virtually all season. So, it'd be easy just to sigh and give the abysmal Avs a pass on MVP. But if we have to select one, Ol' Lappy -- a fringe player, no question -- who attacks every game as if it might be his last, is as good a choice as any.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Steve Mason, G: The lanky rookie has the Blue Jackets thinking playoffs. Not dreaming, thinking. Second in goals-against average (2.22) and first in shutouts (10), he's been the backbone of the Jackets' run. A certain Calder Trophy winner.
Marty Turco, G: OK, we'll admit the 2.82 GAA, 33-31 record and .897 save percentage don't exactly cry out, "MVP!" But the man has logged more minutes (4,261) than any other goaltender in the loop, almost single-handedly lugging around a platoon that could've used Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper McIntyre in the medic room.
Detroit Red Wings
Pavel Datsyuk, C: Explosive, imaginative, improvisational and way tougher than he's generally given credit for. On arguably hockey's most gifted ensemble, he's put up 26 more points (95) than anyone else. As electrifying to watch as either Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin.
Dwayne Roloson, G: His critics call him Rollie The Accidental Goalie for his unorthodox style, and he's been known to let in a few howlers. But there's no denying the 39-year-old with the big ticket is the main reason the Oil Drop is still even hanging by a thread, having started 35 consecutive games as of Saturday's 5-3 upset of the backtracking Vancouver Canucks.
Stephen Weiss, C: With all the attention directed at pending free-agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, Weiss has quietly put together a quality season as the Panthers stayed in the playoff hunt -- 43 assists, 57 points and a plus-15, all Florida bests.
Los Angeles Kings
Anze Kopitar, C: In the seasons ahead, defenseman Drew Doughty is going to put his patent on this little token. But in Doughty's rookie season, the start of the learning curve, Kopitar has been a huge part (66 points) of the Kings' popgun attack.
Niklas Backstrom, G: No, the Wild aren't going to be in the playoffs. But don't blame Backstrom. It's no simple task being the ace pitcher on a team that can't slap the ball out of the infield.
Andrei Markov, D: The 100th anniversary of Les Habitants has been a decidedly up-and-down affair. The Alex Tanguay-Alexei Kovalev-Saku Koivu line is sizzling at the right time, but Markov has been a relative model of consistency throughout. His 52 points leads the Habs.
Shea Weber, D: He has established himself as one of the game's best young defensemen. Third in Preds scoring, a plus player and over 23 minutes a night of ice time. A gem.
New Jersey Devils
Zach Parise, C: Listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds (yeah, sure, and Alan Ladd didn't have to stand on those apple crates to put the smooch on his leading ladies), J.P's kid has set the swamplands on fire. As easy to corral as a drop of mercury spilled on a linoleum tabletop, Parise is going to shatter his personal-best points season by 30-plus.
New York Islanders
Mark Streit, D: Ordinarily, selecting an Islanders MVP is similar to choosing a "best" Adam Sandler movie performance. But Streit, in his first season on the Island of Doom, has given the long-suffering Islanders fans at least a shard of hope with those 55 points. And the fact he's a plus-9 on a woebegone bunch 17 games adrift of .500 is worthy of a statue, not merely a few lines of type.
New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist, G: Among the debris field of underachieving stars that bailed on deposed coach Tom Renney, goalie Lundqvist has at least held up his end of the bargain with 35 wins and a .915 save percentage.
Jeff Carter, C: A breakout season with 44 goals and counting, including an impressive 32 even-strength. A prototype center at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he leads the league in game-winning strikes (11).
Shane Doan, RW: By default. Give this guy a break, please, and trade him to an organization worthy of his talents and loyalty.
Evgeni Malkin, C: Even those of us squarely in the El Sid camp on the Great Debate are left no choice but to shelve national pride and bow to Malkin's superiority this season -- more goals, more assists, more shots, more highlight-reel dashes. Hey, even jaded old sportswriting hacks would pay to watch this guy weave his wonders.
San Jose Sharks
Evgeni Nabokov, G: No shortage of candidates on hockey's best regular-season team -- underrated captain Patrick Marleau, Jumbo Joe Thornton, 30-goal man Devin Setoguchi and puck-moving defenseman Dan Boyle. The pick, though, is the acrobatic Nabokov, who has hit the 40-win mark for the second season running.
St. Louis Blues
Chris Mason, G: Since taking over for Manny Legace (subsequently placed on waivers and then buried alive in Peoria) following a 2-1 OT loss at home to Chicago on Jan. 17, Mason has lost fewer cases than Perry Mason, backstopping the baffling Blues to an amazing 20-8-6 record and right into the thick of the playoff tussle. He's been the centerpiece of the feel-good story of the second half.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Martin St. Louis, RW: The Lightning just seem like the longest-running sitcom since "Seinfeld." In actual fact, they lifted the Stanley Cup only five years ago. Remember? Since then, unfortunately, the whole thing's gone. In the midst of all the in-house chicanery, though, little Marty continues to be a beacon of professionalism. More assists than any Bolt, more points, the best plus-minus and he's played in every one of their 79 games.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Henrik Sedin, C or it is Daniel Sedin, LW?: Darn it, we can't tell them apart (then again, neither can coach Alain Vigneault or most of the Canucks), and they do go everywhere together. So, we'll take them as the Most Valuable Pair. The twins are tied for the Vancouver scoring lead at 80 points, and are virtually identical in plus-minus, as well as becoming free agents July 1. If that isn't enough, their NHL Road Trip "Swedish Twins" commercial remains a cult classic.
Alex Ovechkin, LW: The best player in hockey. Period. End of argument. His infectious joy at playing the game, his sublime mix of brute force and delicate artistry, are simply unmatched in the game today. And biased old fuddy-duddies like Don Cherry (imagine Grapes' take on things if this guy had been born in Kingston, Ontario!?) maybe need to loosen the collar buttons on those overstarched designer shirts. Ovechkin's goal celebrations top the charts, too.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.