When Alex Ovechkin got off to a slow start and Sidney Crosby looked to be back to pre-injury form, for a while it seemed like the MVP debate was over.
That all changed by the end of the season with Ovechkin capturing the Hart Trophy on Saturday.
The Washington Capitals right-winger narrowly edged the Pittsburgh Penguins centre for the third Hart Trophy of his eight-year career.
Ovechkin and Crosby finished with the same amount of points — Ovechkin led the league with 32 goals, while Crosby missed the final 12 games of the season with a broken jaw.
Ultimately, Ovechkin scoring 23 goals in the final 23 games to lift the Capitals into the playoffs was enough to make the difference.
"Sidney Crosby was definitely head over heels a front-runner and is an MVP in this league," said Washington coach Adam Oates. "But in saying that, he also didn't have an MVP season. Not in my view. He got hurt and he missed a sizable amount of games, and I think that has to factor in to the voting."
NHL award winners Saturday
- Hart Memorial Trophy — Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
- James Norris Memorial Trophy — P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
- Vezina Trophy — Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
- Ted Lindsay Award — Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
- Calder Memorial Trophy — Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Ovechkin received 50 first-place votes to Crosby's 46 and finished with 32 more points in the balloting as done by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. John Tavares of the New York Islanders was third, while Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks was fourth.
The lockout-shortened, 48-game season engendered plenty of debate on the interpretation of the award and, now, whether Ovechkin deserved it after scoring just nine goals in the first 25. Oates pointed to his team's slow start and Ovechkin's transition to right wing as reasons for those struggles.
"He didn't have a great start, but he put it to another level that nobody had for 30 games," Oates said. "That probably factors in to maybe what almost might have cost him the award. If he had started from Day One, it wouldn't have been an issue."
Crosby earned the Ted Lindsay Award as the most outstanding player as voted by members of the NHL Players' Association. Getting recognition from his peers meant a lot to Crosby, even in spite of his losing out on the Hart.
"It's one of those things that when you're in the mix and you're that close, it's something you'd love to win," Crosby said. "I feel like I had the best year I possibly could. It didn't work out that I won it.
"I'm not going to be too upset over the fact that I didn't win it. I was in the mix. Alex had a great second half there, and I ended up getting hurt and missing some time there. That's how it works sometimes."
Ovechkin played through injuries during the regular season, general manager George McPhee said, yet the Capitals captain did not miss a game.
"With respect to Alex, durability is part of being a great player," McPhee said in a phone interview. "There are athletes that can't play through injuries, there are athletes that can play through injuries and there are athletes that can play through injuries and be great, too. It's pretty special."
Other award-winners dealt with different kinds of adversity. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender after being traded from the Philadelphia Flyers, who opted to go with Ilya Bryzgalov instead.
"When I was traded to Columbus, I didn't think of what people said or people think," Bobrovsky said through an interpreter. "The most important thing for me was to concentrate how I can help this team, what can I do better, how could I prepare myself to make this team even better."
Bobrovsky, Subban rewarded
Bobrovsky went 37-21-11 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage and almost led the Blue Jackets to just their second Stanley Cup playoffs berth in franchise history. He's the first Vezina winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
Defenceman P.K. Subban helped get the Montreal Canadiens into the playoffs and was rewarded for his 48-point season with the Norris Trophy.
"I think I've grown a lot over the past three years and I'm going to continue to grow," Subban said. "I didn't think I would have made such a personal accomplishment at this point."
Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers earned his first personal accomplishment in the NHL, getting the Calder Trophy as the best rookie. He tied for the rookie lead in scoring.
"He's a great young player," Crosby said. "He's got a lot of skill. He seemed to adjust pretty quickly. To get thrown in there with as many games as we had to play in a short period of time, maybe that might have helped. But he certainly had a terrific year."
Crosby said he had a "pretty good year." But it wasn't enough to beat out Ovechkin for MVP honours after participating in just 36 games.
"There's a lot of guys that are capable of winning the MVP and one of the criteria is games played," Oates said. "That's just a fact, it's one of the criteria, and Sidney got hurt and he missed some games. It doesn't mean he's not an MVP-type player, as Alex is. But this year was Alex's turn."
Ovechkin credited Oates and his staff for the right-wing move working out so well.
"It was kind of hard, but as everybody knows, I like the challenge," he said. "It was big challenge for me and for coaching staff, but we make it."
The current race has Ovechkin with three Hart Trophies to Crosby's one. But the Penguins captain said that's not how he measures his success, and Ovechkin has yet to win the Stanley Cup as Crosby did with Pittsburgh in 2009.
"His goal is, he wants to win the Stanley Cup," McPhee said. "But winning a few MVPs during the journey is special."