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Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Shouldn't impact players like Niedermayer, Conklin be on Hart list?

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Some might suggest it would be like a sitcom winning the Oscar for best picture. Or like playing only the final 36 holes and winning The Masters.

The NHL season, after all, is supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint, with extra marks given to those extraordinarily durable types who can play in all 82 games and soar to the top of their profession.

There's not supposed to be any room for part-timers, at least not when it comes to considering candidates for major individual trophies.

Good thing, too, 'cause if they were awarding the Hart Trophy for league MVP honors solely on the basis of impact, without consideration to the number of games individuals have played, it would be a runaway race between two contestants.

Ty Conklin
Ty Conklin is 10-0-1 in his last 11 games for the Penguins.

And neither would be named Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier or Ilya Kovalchuk, the threesome knotted in a tie at the top of the NHL scoring race as of Wednesday morning.

Not Nicklas Lidstrom, either, the man with the gaudy plus-35 rating for a team that's winning more than any other outfit these days.

Jarome Iginla? Sorry. Alexander Ovechkin? Only if the longest contract wins. We're not talking Daniel Alfredsson of those Ottawa Senators, either.

No, if you're willing to ignore convention and tradition, you could make an argument that the two leading Hart contenders right now weren't even competing in the league when the calendar flipped from November to December.

While the NHL was battling through the first 30 games of its schedule, both Scott Niedermayer and Ty Conklin were mostly sitting around.

Niedermayer was trying to figure out whether at age 34 he'd had enough of pro hockey and needed to look elsewhere for new challenges.

Conklin, meanwhile, was the third-string goalie of the Pittsburgh Penguins, probably wondering whether at age 31 he was ever going to get a serious NHL chance again.

Yet, here we are now in mid-January, and the impact these two players have had on this season in the past month is remarkable.

Hart-like, really.

Niedermayer, of course, did rejoin the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 5 after looking deep into his soul and finding he wasn't ready to walk away.

"I was surprised that I felt like there was a need to do something," Niedermayer said last week. "I felt having an extended summer vacation would be alright, and it still will be one day. But at least now in the back of my mind I know, like most people do, that when you wake up in the morning, its nice to have something to do, something where you're making a difference."

At that time, the defending Stanley Cup champs were like a car without snow tires on a wintry street, seemingly moving forward at some moments, then sliding off course at other. The Ducks were 15-15-4 to start the season without Niedermayer and the similarly unofficially retired Teemu Selanne, nursing a serious Cup hangover and wondering if they might suffer the same fate as the 2006 Carolina champs and miss the playoffs the season after sipping champagne.

But then Niedermayer arrived, and it was suddenly like there were chains on the tires and the champs were back on the path to success.

In 14 games, including Tuesday's victory over Dallas, the Ducks are 10-2-2 with the All-Star blueliner back in harness. The victory over the Stars pushed Anaheim past Dallas in the Pacific Division and within one point of first-place San Jose, which the Ducks had knocked off two nights earlier in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. Niedermayer had a goal and two assists against the Stars in an economical 20:27 of play.

"This is the best game he's played this year," confirmed coach Randy Carlyle.

You can downplay the Niedermayer factor, but the fact is that checking center Samuel Pahlsson, considered a vital part of the Anaheim game plan, has been missing for 10 games, Selanne still hasn't agreed to return and many of the team's forwards still aren't scoring.

Yet without Niedermayer, they weren't winning. With Niedermayer, they are, including beating a Dallas team that had given Anaheim fits earlier this season.

"When he's really on his game, it's sick how good he can be," goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere told the Orange County Register. "When he has a good game, he dominates ... he stands over everybody else."

Niedermayer, the winner of playoff MVP honors last spring, will be able to play a maximum of 48 games this season. Too little to win the Hart?

Mario Lemieux once won the Hart having played only 60 games, but he potted 160 points over that span. Pavel Bure was once a Calder Trophy winner as top rookie with a 65-game season.

But 48 games?

If that's too few, well, you won't even want to discuss Conklin, who probably won't get into 40 games this season even if he continues to set the entire Eastern Conference on its ear with his stellar play.

Before arriving to mop up for Dany Sabourin in a desultory 8-2 loss to Philly on Dec. 11, Conklin's last set of statistics showed him struggling along with the rest of the Syracuse Crunch last season in the American Hockey League; he posted a 3-12-0 record along with a 3.32 goals-against average and .902 save percentage when he wasn't getting the odd chance to play for the Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres.

You wonder how he managed to get a contract from the Penguins last summer. After all, the lingering image of the Alaskan had been his gaffe in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals while playing for the Edmonton Oilers that led directly to a victory for the Carolina Hurricanes.

All of this, obviously, was hardly the résumé of a savior, and when he did replace Sabourin in that loss to the Flyers, he allowed three goals in his part of the game. Then, something clicked for both Conklin and the Penguins, who were scratching and clawing to be among the top eight of the Eastern Conference at that time and looking like one of the big disappointments of the season.

With Conklin in goal, the Pens haven't lost in regulation since, going 10-0-1 and rising to a tie in points with the New Jersey Devils at the top of the Atlantic Division. Despite dumping Mark Recchi and losing veteran winger Gary Roberts to a broken leg, the Pens have come together, and Conklin seems to be the main reason with his scintillating .949 save percentage.

"It's been the same story; it's like a broken record," said Crosby, no slouch himself over the same period.

No goalie has won the Hart since Jose Theodore won it in 2002, and both Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo came in behind Crosby last season.

But Conklin has had a Niedermayer-like impact on the Penguins, that's for sure. He won the Jan. 1 outdoor game in Buffalo, as well, and that game had only the biggest TV exposure in the U.S. of any NHL game this season.

Traditionalists will gasp at the mere notion that these two could be considered for the Hart along with stalwarts like Crosby, Lecavalier, Kovalchuk, Lidstrom, etc.

But facts are facts, and no two men have changed the seasons of their respective teams and conferences more than Niedermayer and Conklin.

Now, they just have to keep it up, and we may have a real debate on our hands.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."