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Five candidates for NHL MVP

Heading into the home stretch of the regular season, this season’s Hart Trophy race appears to be wide open. Here are five leading candidates for the NHL's most valuable player award, listed in alphabetical order:

Brad Marchand, Bruins

“Little Ball of Hate” is already taken, but the nickname fits Marchand as well as it fit Pat Verbeek, the previous generation’s 5-foot-9 annoyance. Like Verbeek, Marchand can tick opponents off in a variety of ways, from embellishing a “penalty” (for which he was recently fined by the NHL) to throwing a vicious elbow (suspended five games in January) to scoring a soul-crushing goal (OT winners Saturday in Montreal, Tuesday in Detroit).

Taylor Hall, Devils

Can someone please explain why the Oilers thought trading Hall, the 2010 No. 1 pick, straight up for defenseman Adam Larsson was a good idea? Hall has been on a season-long tear for the surprising Devils and doing it while playing alongside rookies Nico Hischier (last year’s No. 1 pick) and Jesper Bratt. Hall’s candidacy hinges on the Devils hanging onto a playoff spot, which is no sure thing.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning

When you weigh Hart Trophy candidates, start with the best player on the best team. With all due respect to teammate Steven Stamkos, at the moment that player would be Kucherov, who was leading the league with 86 points heading into Wednesday’s games. Kucherov has been on a steady rise — 29 goals in ’14-15, 30 in ’15-16, 40 last season and 33 and counting this year. And he’s only 24, so who knows where he tops out?

Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche

The No. 1 pick in 2013 is returning to the form he showed as a rookie. Despite missing time with an injury, MacKinnon ranks among the league’s scoring leaders and is one of the reasons behind the Avs’ late-season surge. The 22-year-old center is averaging a league-best 1.34 points per game (through Tuesday), but like Hall, his Hart Trophy hopes depend on whether he can lift his team into the postseason.

Pekka Rinne, Predators

The 35-year-old goaltender is having another fine season for a team that is unquestionably a Cup contender. Rinne’s numbers are strong: 36-9-4 (through Tuesday), .928 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against. He might not get as much hype as some of his peers get (this means you, Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist), but unlike those other goalies, Rinne will be a playoff participant rather than a spectator.

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