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Posted: Friday January 9, 2009 5:46PM; Updated: Friday January 9, 2009 6:14PM
Allan Muir Allan Muir >
INSIDE THE NHL

My first half award winners

Story Highlights

Zach Parise deserves the MVP, but it's hard to deny Alex Ovechkin

Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason is my leader for two major awards

My choice for the Norris is a surprise from Boston's stout blueline

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Rookie goaltender Steve Mason has the Blue Jackets convinced they can hang with and even beat the league's big boys.
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Well, here we are already at the halfway point of the 2008-09 NHL season, and just look at all the fun that has gone down:

Five of the Original Six are playoffs-bound while new GM Brian Burke dreams of reassembling Anaheim's fourth line in Toronto.

Chicago leads the league in both attendance and bandwagon fans who claim to have stuck with the team all along.

Players on the Kings and Blue Jackets are canceling the weddings and golf trips they've traditionally planned for early April.

Barry Melrose redefined the term scorched earth after being canned by the Lightning.

The Red Wings flirted with the thought of defending the Cup with the league's worst defense.

Marty Turco passed Dan Cloutier to become the all-time leader in Photoshopped pictures involving beach balls.

Jarkko Ruutu brought the cannibalism issue out of the dark closet.

Sean Avery reintroduced us all to a particular phrase that hadn't been heard since Grease last aired on The Disney Channel.

And Gary Bettman proved himself to be a bold and decisive leader...at least when it comes to protecting his daughter from the seamier elements of 1950s slang.

Yes, there were plenty of good times to be had in the first half, but there was also plenty of serious hockey, with a number of players using the first 41 games or so to establish their place among the league's best. Here are my thoughts on who is out front in the race to look awkward in a tux come June.

You have some different ideas? Feel free to weigh in here or drop me a line with your suggestions, but please, remember to use the F key judiciously. Thank you.

HART TROPHY
(Player adjudged to the be the most valuable to his team)

Alexander Ovechkin, Washington

Also considered:
Zach Parise
, New Jersey
Marc Savard, Boston
Jarome Iginla, Calgary

The case for Ovechkin over Parise and the others should be self-evident, but I lay out my argument in the SI.com writers' roundtable. Click here for complete edification. But before you go, take a moment to recognize the transformation of Savard from passing savant to gritty two-way leader, and the continued excellence of Iginla, who carried the Flames to first place in the Northwest while Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff struggled to live up to their superstar billing. Barring injury, neither Savard nor Iginla has a real chance to take home the hardware in June, but both deserve to be in the conversation.

CALDER MEMORIAL TROPHY
(Top rookie)

Steve Mason, Columbus

Also considered:
Drew Doughty
, Los Angeles
Kris Versteeg, Chicago
Bobby Ryan, Anaheim

Mason has played only half as many games as other leading contenders, but it's impossible to overlook the impact he's had on the legitimacy of the Blue Jackets. The mind-blowing numbers he posting (more on those later) are one thing, but the hope he provides on a nightly basis is key: Not just that the Jackets can compete with anyone, but that they can beat them. Mason may be a kid -- he was playing juniors just six months ago -- but he has the special presence that grants his teammates a bit of swagger. They play bigger, stronger, smarter hockey with him between the pipes, and that has Columbus in contention for its first-ever playoff berth. Hard for any rookie, no matter how skilled, to trump that.

Doughty's play has slipped of late, a victim of both overuse and more difficult assignments, but you can't ignore what he's meant to the young and improving Kings. Versteeg, stolen from the Bruins in a deal for Brandon Bochenski, brings speed, scoring touch and defensive prowess to help round out Chicago's top six. And while Ryan is forced to play catch-up after his start was delayed by Anaheim's cap issues, his skill set, especially on the power play, suggests he could challenge Versteeg for the rookie scoring title.

VEZINA TROPHY
(Top goaltender)

Steve Mason, Columbus

Also considered:
Nicklas Backstrom
, Minnesota
Tim Thomas, Boston

If the league's GMs were to vote today, they'd likely give the nod to San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov, both for backstopping the league's top team and as an apology for screwing him over last season when he actually deserved it. But that 21-4-4 record masks the 19th-rated GAA (2.55) and 27th-best save percentage (.906) -- hardly Vezina material.

Mason's numbers, on the other hand, have been out of this world. After 23 appearances, he leads the league in GAA (1.82), save pct. (.934) and shutouts (5). And remember, he's not exactly playing behind Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard and Larry Robinson with the hard-working but modestly talented Blue Jackets. Forget the hardware. If Mason can get Columbus into the playoffs, he might qualify for canonization.

Thomas (16 wins, 2.13 GAA, .932 save pct.) and partner Manny Fernandez (13 wins, 1.96, .932) may be just as worthy as Mason, but there's no getting past the fact that they'd split the vote. Too bad, as both are equally deserving of the honor. At least they'll have the Jennings to aim for. Backstrom might be docked by some for being the beneficiary of Minnesota's defensive scheme, but the truth is that he is its backbone. Smart of him to put up this kind of performance with free agency beckoning.

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