Ten years ago, the Buffalo Sabres despised their reputation as an average team with a great goaltender. Presumably, it cut too close to the truth. They were slightly better than average, but they wouldn't have reached the conference finals twice and the Stanley Cup finals once without Dominik Hasek.
Hasek became the first goalie in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy in consecutive seasons, which he collected without giving his teammates just praise. Critics moan that goalies don't deserve the award because they have the Vezina Trophy, much like pitchers shouldn't be named MVP because they receive the Cy Young.
It's also more ridiculous.
Goalies play the most important position. Hasek's value wasn't just in the opportunities he stopped but the ones he created. The Sabres took more chances with him in net, and they gained confidence knowing he was back there. And that's how Vancouver thrived this season with goalie Roberto Luongo.
Luongo should win the Hart this season, but don't be surprised if he doesn't. Some will argue he's not even the NHL's best goalie, let alone its Most Valuable Player. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur entered the weekend with 48 victories, breaking Bernie Parent's NHL record, a better goals-against average (2.18), save percentage (.922) and more shutouts (12) than Luongo (46 wins, 2.28 GAA, a .921 SP and five shutouts).
This is a rare case in which Luongo should be named MVP without being named top goalie. Luongo was more valuable to the Canucks than Brodeur was to the Devils. He carried Vancouver, which had a losing record through 36 games, into the playoffs. Brodeur was the better goaltender, but he had plenty of help from the Devils' disciplined team defense.
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby wins the MVP in almost any other year after leading the league in scoring. He's going to have multiple Harts on his mantel, but he shouldn't win it this season.
Here are my postseason award winners. A reminder, they are not predictions.
Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player): Luongo.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender): Brodeur.
Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Chris Pronger, Anaheim. Teammate Scott Niedermayer deserves consideration along with four-time winner Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit. Pronger had 13 goals and 59 points and was plus-28 going into the weekend despite missing 16 games. The Ducks were barely above .500 without him.
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward): Chris Drury, Buffalo. The Sabres co-captain had a career year offensively, which overshadowed how strong he was in his own end. He was matched up against the top lines all season, was on the top penalty-killing unit and was second in faceoffs behind Selke winner Rod Brind'Amour among players who took 900 or more. Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk isn't a true stopper, but he led the league in takeaways and was plus-37.
Calder Trophy (top rookie): Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh. He has little chance of winning. Pens center Evgeni Malkin had 33 goals and 85 points going into the weekend while playing more minutes. Staal did everything. He had 29 goals, including an NHL-leading seven short-handed scores, and was plus-17.
Jack Adams (top coach): Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh. The Penguins appeared to be at least a year away from contention early in the season, but they challenged for the division title with a roster loaded with kids. He provided discipline while quickly developing his young talent. Nashville's Barry Trotz deserves consideration.
Lady Byng (gentlemanly conduct): Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Minnesota. The 22-year-old had 19 goals and 56 points going into the weekend with just 14 penalty minutes. He's not going to flatten many players, but he's clean, competitive and effective. Byng winner Datsyuk had just 20 penalty minutes, remarkable for anyone playing 20 minutes a night.
Marchant hurt again
Williamsville native Todd Marchant is back on the injured list, this time with a torn groin muscle. He missed 17 games with similar problems this season. He's expected to be sidelined until at least the second round of the playoffs.
It's a significant loss for the Ducks, who view Marchant as their unsung hero. He was their second-leading scorer in the playoffs last season before they were dumped in the conference finals. He's also their top defensive forward and best penalty killer up front.
Thrashers feel buzz
The Thrashers believe making the playoffs for the first time since joining the league in 1999-2000 gives them the staying power they need. Atlanta is known more for hosting events than the success of its own teams, save the Braves.
"Those other events, the Final Four, the Super Bowl, those are for outsiders," owner Bruce Levenson said. "This is a big event for the sports fans in Atlanta. I feel the buzz everywhere I go in this city. I feel the buzz of a city uniting behind their local team.
"If we had continued to fail . . . hockey would have been in trouble in Atlanta. But it is our belief that by producing a record of success and by bringing playoff hockey to Atlanta, we're going to do in Atlanta what has been done in Carolina and Tampa Bay. We're going to firmly establish hockey in Atlanta."
McCollum's star rises
Goalie Thomas McCollum is the latest Western New Yorker to evolve into a big-time prospect. The Sanborn native was named to the U.S. National under-18 team that will compete in the world championships Thursday to April 22 in Finland. Team USA has won the past two gold medals.
McCollum was mostly unknown while playing for the Wheatfield Blades Junior B team before bursting onto the international scene this year. He was spotted while playing for Wheatfield last season, signed with the Guelph Storm as a free agent and became one of the OHL's best goaltenders.
He had a 16-18-10 record, a 2.39 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage as a rookie. His GAA was second among OHL goalies. The 17-year-old will be eligible for the NHL draft in 2008.
Marian Gaborik appears back to full strength after missing 34 games with groin problems. He was on pace for 50 goals and 95 points and could have a major impact for a Minnesota team that won without him.
Gaborik is one of the fastest players in the league, but he hasn't played more than 65 games in any of the previous three seasons. The time away from the rink convinced him to spend more time before practice and games warming up.
"He came out of his car and jumped on the ice and did 100 mph," coach Jacques Lemaire said. "No wonder he's going to blow out a tire."
Thrashers superstar Ilya Kovalchuk after coach Bob Hartley benched him for all but 90 seconds of the third period against Washington: "What am I going to do? He's the coach this year."
Around the boards
Dallas had just 97 man-games lost to injury last season but had 280 this season going into the weekend. The only teams with more were St. Louis (357), Chicago (330) and Philadelphia (282), all of which missed the playoffs by a mile. By the way, the Stars aren't in a hurry to get Eric Lindros back in the lineup.
Ex-Sabres center Dale Hawerchuk was added to Phoenix's Ring of Honor -- yes, there is one -- even though he never played a shift for the Coyotes. Hawerchuk was the franchise's leading scorer when the team was still in Winnipeg. It's old news to Desert Dog diehards, all five of them.
The Flames weren't crediting Jarome Iginla or Miikka Kiprusoff for their recent six-game winning streak so much as they were plumbers Marcus Nilson, Stephane Yelle and Jeff Friesen. They don't score much, but they grind down opposing defensemen and open up the ice for the other three lines.
A recent poll in the Hockey News revealed that Edmonton and Carolina were the worst teams to play for, odd considering 10 months ago they played for the Stanley Cup. Buffalo was behind Edmonton as the NHL's second-worst city for a player. It's certain to change once the Devils start playing in Newark.