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Making the case for our MVP picks

This year marks the first time the Hart Trophy has had three Russian finalists: Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Washington's Alex Ovechkin. But our experts believe it's a two-man race heading into Thursday's awards show. Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun make the case for their MVP votes:

Scott Burnside: My case for Evgeni Malkin

I must admit, when it came time to hit the send button on my annual awards picks as a member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, I hesitated.

As the NHL's regular season wound to its conclusion, I had voiced my opinion on a number of occasions, through a number of media, that Evgeni Malkin was a worthy pick for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. It was a pretty easy argument to make at the time; Malkin had established a large lead in the NHL scoring race, and his once-dormant Penguins had been revitalized as a Cup contender.

But as the days crept by and the April 15 voting deadline approached, Washington star Alex Ovechkin began closing the gap on Malkin. Still, I held fast to my original belief that Malkin was a Hart Trophy player. Having covered every Penguins playoff game this spring, I have no regrets, even though I understand the playoffs are a separate being altogether.

Still, the reasons I believed Malkin was the correct Hart candidate were merely reinforced with his Conn Smythe Trophy turn in the postseason. What I found most impressive about Malkin's game in the regular season -- and what was apparent again in the playoffs -- was that he has evolved very quickly into the type of player who can carry a team. He can make those around him better on almost any given night, and when things look bleak, he relishes the chance to step forward. Those are qualities that few players possess, even those blessed with great skill.

Remember, this was a Pittsburgh team that fired coach Michel Therrien midway through the season. The Penguins looked like a long shot to make the playoffs. Yet, one of the catalysts to their turnaround was Malkin's elite play. He finished with 113 points and 78 assists, both league bests. He led the NHL in takeaways. When Ovechkin charged down the stretch, Malkin, fiercely competitive, responded with points in nine of his last 11 games, including four multipoint games as he edged Ovechkin for the Art Ross Trophy and helped the Penguins earn home-ice advantage.

Far from one-dimensional, Malkin displayed a vigorous physical game as he routinely knocked opponents off the puck and played strong, smart defense both in the neutral zone and in his own zone.

Critics will suggest that Malkin plays in Sidney Crosby's shadow; but although Malkin remains elusive when it comes to the media, he has emerged as Crosby's equal, not his protégé. Others will suggest Ovechkin does not have a player like Crosby to help shoulder the burden, but that, too, is a fallacy. Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are all superb complementary players, as witnessed by the Capitals' finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

The fact that we are debating a field that includes three Russian finalists for the Hart Trophy for the first time in NHL history suggests the league is entering uncharted territory in terms of its youthful pedigree. For my money, though, the NHL's scoring leader and playoff MVP also should be its regular-season MVP.

Pierre LeBrun: My case for Alex Ovechkin

With all due respect to Detroit Red Wings star center Pavel Datsyuk, one of the world's best players, the only intrigue for the Hart Trophy awarding Thursday night in Las Vegas is whether Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals or Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins will pick up the NHL's top regular-season hardware.

Both made compelling cases, but when your humble ESPN.com hockey writer cast his ballot, he gave his first-place vote again to Ovechkin, unlike good friend Scott Burnside, who went with Malkin.

But, we ask, what did the reigning Hart Trophy winner do to deserve to lose the crown? Nothing, that's what. He led the league in goals (56), points per game (1.39), shots (528) and power-play points (46), and he had eight more points than Malkin (51-43) after the All-Star break, when the games mattered more.

Still, there is no bad choice.

"Both guys are tremendous," loquacious Caps coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "In the playoffs, our goal was to stop Malkin, it was not to stop Crosby. Evidently, we were a little wrong there because Crosby [15 playoff goals] had a better time of it. But we thought Malkin was more the straw that stirred the stick than Sidney was.

"That's his positive. But Malkin gets a ton of assists, and a lot of them are second assists. Our guy gets the goals, and, in the end, the hardest thing to do in the NHL is to score goals. I also think Alex led the league in third-period goals."

Ovechkin's 56 goals were 10 more than the next player, Philadelphia's Jeff Carter, at 46.

"It's no secret to me that we ended up fourth overall and every team's game plan was to stop Alex," Boudreau added. "Now, if you play Pittsburgh, every team's game plan might not necessarily be to stop Malkin, but it might be to stop Sidney or it might be split 50-50. But there's no doubt when you're talking about trying to stop the Washington Capitals, you're trying to stop Alex Ovechkin."

Case closed, Boudreau said.

"To me, it's a no-brainer, he's the most valuable player. You take our guy out of the lineup and you take Malkin out of their lineup, which team is going to be more successful? I think they still have their 1-A superstar [Crosby]."

That's also why the Penguins are a better team than the Caps right now. They have two superstars to Washington's one. Although it's true we have made the argument this past season that the Caps' supporting cast -- including Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom and winger Alexander Semin -- took giant strides in 2008-09, the fact remains that Pittsburgh's overall depth is stronger.

Ovechkin's loss in Washington would be felt more greatly, which is why we believe he better meets the criteria for the most valuable player award in the NHL this regular season.

Ovechkin would be the first player since goalie Dominik Hasek (1997-98) to win the award in consecutive years and the first forward since The Great One, Wayne Gretzky (1980-87). Nice company, indeed.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. No word yet on whether they're checking out the Wayne Newton show in Vegas.