By Steve Silverman

The end of the regular-season is in sight, and while the playoff chase and playoff positioning is the main story, the race for the Hart Trophy is another big one.

In years past, the race regularly seemed to be between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – although Patrick Kane, Carey Price and Evgeni Malkin also were winners. Connor McDavid threw his name into the equation when he won the award last year, and he is the league’s leading scorer with 102 points this year.

While McDavid has received some wrong-headed support for the award this year, he really is not a true candidate. The Edmonton Oilers were the up-and-coming team a year ago as they made the playoffs and even won a series, but they have been an abysmal failure this year. They were out of the playoff race in February, and McDavid has to take his share of the blame.

The Oilers needed their leader to step up this year and help keep the team together. McDavid couldn’t do that, and while he may be able to turn it around next year, he has not distinguished himself in that category in 2017-18.

The leading candidates this year are Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

gettyimages 923885748 Taylor Hall Leading The Pack In Hart Trophy Race

Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Hall has basically put the Devils in the playoff structure by the sheer force of his will and ability. When Hall was drafted with the No. 1 pick by the Oilers in 2010, this was the kind of production that was expected. Hall is like a runaway freight train when he has the puck on his stick, and he has shown off his skill with his amazing moves and powerful shot.

Hall has 85 points in 71 games, and he is averaging 1.20 points per game. Hall has scored six game-winning goals, and three of them have come in overtime. A full 13.0 percent of his shots have found the back of the net.

Kucherov has been the engine that has driven the Lightning all season. Kucherov means as much or more to the Lightning as superstar Steven Stamkos, and he may be the most creative player in the league. Kucherov has 96 points in 74 games, and that includes 38 goals, seven of which have been game-winners. Kucherov’s ability to find any open teammate with a lights-out pass separates him from the rest of the league.

Much like Hall has lifted the Devils, MacKinnon has powered the Avalanche into playoff contention. If the season ended today, the Avs would find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in, but they have 90 points and are just one point behind the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks. The Avs have a game in hand on the Ducks and are on the cusp of a playoff spot after a disastrous year in 2016-17.

MacKinnon has 92 points in 68 games, and a league-leading 11 game-winners. He has remarkable speed, and his ability to make big plays at key moments have made him a legitimate candidate.

Here’s our ranking based on all-around play this season:

  1.        Taylor Hall, New Jersey
  2.        Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay
  3.        Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado
  4.        Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg
  5.        Alex Ovechkin, Washington
  6.        Patrice Bergeron, Boston
  7.        Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
  8.        Brad Marchand, Boston
  9.        Connor McDavid, Edmonton
  10.    Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh

McDavid’s a great player, but this is not his year.

gettyimages 938398664 Taylor Hall Leading The Pack In Hart Trophy Race

Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Capitals are mystery team heading into playoffs

The Washington Capitals are in good shape to win the Metropolitan Division title for the third year in a row.

However, after dominating the league in the regular season each of the past two seasons and coming away with the Presidents’ Trophy in both of those years, the Caps have been the NHL’s primary postseason disappointment by losing in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in both of those years.

This year, the Caps have been fairly ordinary, as they are well behind the Lightning and the Bruins in the Eastern Conference.

As a result, the Caps will go into the playoffs with far less pressure than they have in the past, and could that make the difference for them and allow them to play free-and-easy and allow them to get to the Conference finals and beyond?

It’s possible, but don’t bet on it. The big reason for that conclusion has been the play of goalie Braden Holtby.

After winning the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16 and performing brilliantly last year, Holtby has been below average with a 3.03 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage. He has not been anywhere near as sharp as he has been in the past, and while backup Philipp Grubauer has been solid with a 2.34 GAA and a .923 save percentage, head coach Barry Trotz has a problem.

The Caps also need Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson to step up when it matters most. That has not happened in the past, and there seems to be a cloud of doom hanging over this team.

gettyimages 859958730 Taylor Hall Leading The Pack In Hart Trophy Race

Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Blues, Stars going in opposite directions

The St. Louis Blues were being left for dead a couple of weeks ago, and the Dallas Stars were starting to count their playoff money.

However, the season didn’t end then, and both teams won’t conclude their season until April 7. The Blues have become a resolute team of overachievers, having played their way back into the playoff structure with six straight victories – three of which have come in overtime.

The Stars beat the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night by a 3-2 margin in overtime, and that win ended an eight-game losing streak. Obviously, that streak came at the wrong time, as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin tried to turn the team around but couldn’t get it done.

The Blues seemed to cash in their season when they traded Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline, but they have come alive and show no signs of slowing down. On the other hand, the Stars’ victory over the Flyers is most likely a case of too little, too late.

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