Think fast: Who's the best player in the NHL?
Better come up with an answer as fast as you can, because if you hesitate for just a moment, you might find yourself wanting to give a different answer.
Coming into this season, this was a pretty easy question. Nobody dared doubt the supremacy of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby.
That was with good reason. Coming off a season in which he won both the Art Ross and Hart trophies — and gutted it out during the playoffs with a broken foot — there was no reason to dispute the coronation of the next king of the NHL.
But once we got into the 2007-08 season, things started to loosen up a little bit. Sure, Crosby was still No. 1, but as the great American statesman Daniel Webster once said, "There is always room at the top." And by dint of some impressive starts, it was clear more than a few folks were looking to elbow their way into the conversation.
Early on, it looked like Crosby's foremost challengers were Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier. And there were more than a few nights when Calgary's Jarome Iginla, Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom or even Martin Brodeur deserved serious consideration.
But the event that really opened up the field came on Jan. 18, when Crosby was knocked to the ice by Tampa Bay defenseman Paul Ranger before crashing awkwardly into the boards. The result: A high ankle sprain and 21 games on the injured list for the greatest talent in the game.
Around the time of Crosby's injury, Washington's Alex Ovechkin started staking his claim to the title of best player. Aided by a new coach who wasn't afraid to gamble in the offensive zone, Ovechkin took his game to new heights. In the 12 games immediately following Crosby's injury, Ovechkin posted 13 goals and eight assists, and he rocketed to the league lead in goals and points. The streak reached its zenith Jan. 31, when Ovechkin, despite breaking his nose, led the Caps to a 5-4 overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens. He scored four goals, including the game-winner, and assisted on another.
But as quickly as he caught fire, Ovechkin flamed out by going seven games without a goal. Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, a name that hadn't entered the best player conversation before, Evgeni Malkin, stepped into the breach created by Crosby's absence.
Though I'm sure most folks would agree there isn't anyone in hockey who could fill Crosby's skates, it's hard to imagine anybody stepping in for him better than Malkin did. In the 21 games Crosby sat out, Malkin took his game to another level. He scored 14 goals and tallied 23 assists while the Penguins posted an 11-6-4 record and remained atop the Eastern Conference standings.
But as suddenly as Ovechkin's goal drought started, he managed to end it dramatically. After snapping his goal-less string Saturday against Toronto, Ovechkin and the Capitals stunned the Boston Bruins on Monday with a 10-2 thumping.
Ovechkin needed only a period to get a hat trick — goals 50, 51 and 52 on the season. He later added a pair of assists to pass Malkin for the league lead in scoring, and he ended the night with what looks like an insurmountable, 10-goal lead over Ilya Kovalchuk, the NHL's second-leading goal scorer. Ovechkin also became the first player to reach 50 goals and 90 points on the season.
But just when the adulation for Ovechkin had reached new heights, Crosby returned to the ice Tuesday in Tampa. Almost as if on cue, Crosby re-inserted himself into the best-player conversation by assisting on the game-winning goal. Then, just a few minutes later, Malkin potted an empty-netter to creep within one point of Ovechkin for the league lead in scoring.
So what's next? Will the pressure of fighting for a playoff spot with a young team finally get to Ovechkin? Will Malkin wilt now that Crosby is back in the spotlight, diminishing his ice time? And will anyone finally decide to give Martin Brodeur his due? After all, he continues to carry New Jersey as the Devils take to the ice each night with a suspect defense and an anemic attack.
Who's the best player in the NHL? Stay tuned. Just don't blink.
Live Extra: Jason Spezza had plenty of spring in his step, and Erik Karlsson rebounded from a rough Game 2, but Ottawa couldn't beat Pittsburgh's Tomas Vokoun in the first period of Game 3.
Video: NHL from NBC Sports
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