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Flames' Johnny Gaudreau keeps firing his way into the Hart Trophy conversation

'Johnny Hockey' was a pre-season favorite to lead the Flames, but to win league MVP? Not a chance. With the second half underway, though, Gaudreau appears to be taking aim at more than a playoff berth in Calgary.

Johnny Gaudreau isn’t the Hart Trophy frontrunner. Let’s get that out of the way. That title belongs to Nikita Kucherov, who was widely considered the league leader in the MVP race at the midpoint of the campaign. Not without reason, either, as Kucherov’s case is nearly ironclad. He’s the league’s leading scorer, driving the offense for the NHL’s top team, and his next-closest opponent in the race for the Art Ross Trophy is six points back. There aren’t a lot of flaws in Kucherov’s game, and his standing as the best player on the best team with the best odds to win the Stanley Cup has earned him considerable recognition.

However, as the second half of the campaign winds on, Gaudreau’s entrance into the MVP conversation has become nearly impossible to ignore, and it was all sparked by back-to-back contests that kicked off the new year.

On Dec. 31 against the division-rival San Jose Sharks, Gaudreau was phenomenal. In a game that pitted two of the Pacific’s top teams against one another, he was head and shoulders above anyone else on the ice. First getting on the board midway through the second frame with the primary assist on a Matthew Tkachuk tally, Gaudreau proceeded to pick up another primary helper late in the frame before a two-goal third frame put the Flames ahead for good in a heated affair.

But one four-point night wasn’t enough for Gaudreau, who went out and put on another show the next time out. This time on the road against the Detroit Red Wings, Gaudreau dotted the scoresheet as Calgary erased a two-goal deficit. He picked up the second assist on the Flames’ first of the night, the primary helper on the tying goal and another secondary assist as Calgary drew level for a second time late in the middle period. The icing on the cake was Gaudreau’s game-winning goal midway through the third, giving him consecutive four-point outings to kick off the back half of the 2018-19 slate.

Since those outings, too, Gaudreau has neared on unstoppable. As he enters action Wednesday night against the Buffalo Sabres, the diminutive playmaker is riding an eight-game point streak that has seen him rack up a ridiculous eight goals and 18 points. And all of a sudden, after working his way into the top 10 of the NHL scoring race, Gaudreau finds himself tied for second spot in the hunt for the Art Ross, leading the charge for the Western Conference’s top team — and top attack — with his sights seemingly set on not only guiding Calgary back to the post-season, but making a real run at snatching the hardware from Kucherov.

Is this entirely new for Gaudreau? Not necessarily. Matter of fact, entering this season, Gaudreau was regarded as one of the game’s elite playmakers and most skillful players. But the run ‘Johnny Hockey’ is on right now, and has been throughout the season, is starting to make his past outputs look like child’s play. Just consider how well his 47 games this season stack up against the past four complete seasons of his career.

With 35 games remaining in the Flames’ campaign, Gaudreau has netted 27 goals and 69 points. Already, that makes this the second-best goal-scoring season of Gaudreau’s career and sees him only four goals shy of setting a new career-best mark. Additionally, he's already piled up more points this season than he scored across 80 games during the 2014-15 season — he registered 24 goals and 64 points during his freshman campaign — and is eight points clear of his 2016-17 total of 61 points. Furthermore, Gaudreau is only nine points back of matching his second-best career total of 78 points, notched during the 2015-16 season, and in order to surpass his career best point total, 84 points during the 2017-18 campaign, he’d need only score 16 points the rest of the way. Again, he has 35 games (!) left to play. Suffice to say, he’s found another gear.

In fact, at his current rate of scoring, Gaudreau would virtually lap those two 60-point campaigns and leave his high-70s and mid-80s point totals in the dust. Operating at a bonkers 1.47 points per game, the fourth-best rate in the NHL, Gaudreau is on pace to crack the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his career and net a whopping 120 points. For some additional context, his would be the first 40-goal season by any Flame since Jarome Iginla’s 43-goal season in 2010-11 and the highest scoring season in franchise history since Kent Nilsson's 131-point campaign in 1980-81.

It’s not measuring Gaudreau against his own success — nor historical success for Flames players — that puts him into the MVP conversation, though. For that, you have to stack Gaudreau’s numbers up against the other top contenders. And even then, Gaudreau continues to shine.

Of course, on the basis of overall production, Kucherov holds the aforementioned six-point lead over Gaudreau, who is tied in the scoring race with Connor McDavid and Mikko Rantanen and five points or fewer ahead of Nathan MacKinnon and Patrick Kane. (Though Kane can be almost entirely disqualified from the Hart hunt. The Blackhawks’ star isn’t going to win for his play leading lottery-bound club. Just ask McDavid.)

However, at 5-on-5, the numbers skew a bit more in Gaudreau’s favor. With 39 points at five-a-side, Gaudreau is only two points back of Kucherov and tied with McDavid for second in the NHL. When that’s further limited to primary points — goals and first assists — Gaudreau moves ahead of both, though. His 32 primary points are tied for second in the NHL at 5-on-5, one back of league leaders Brayden Point and Mitch Marner and level with John Tavares. Given the importance of full-strength scoring, too, that’s a definite feather in Gaudreau’s cap and an interesting note when it comes to his Hart case.

Beyond scoring, though, there’s something to be said for Gaudreau’s overall 5-on-5 play. A member of one of the league’s top possession teams, Gaudreau has been a beast in the play-driving department. Among forwards with 500 minutes, his 55 percent Corsi rate is the 28th-best in the NHL among forwards with 500 minutes played. That's nearly a full two percent (and 20 spots) better than Kucherov despite the latter owning a heavier percentage of offensive-zone starts. McDavid lags behind Gaudreau, as well, with a slightly heavier offensive-zone start percentage, as does Rantanen, who has among the highest offensive-zone start percentages at five-a-side in the NHL.

It’s also worth noting that Gaudreau has the 12th-highest individual shot attempts total, ahead of Kucherov, McDavid and Rantanen, and outshines his two closest scoring competitors in individual scoring chances while sitting even with McDavid in producing high-danger attempts. And while Gaudreau trails Rantanen in goals for percentage by roughly 1.5 percent — the Avalanche winger has been on-ice for three fewer goals for, but also four fewer against — Gaudreau has outshone Kucherov and McDavid in that category.

What will likely end up determining the Hart this season, however, is the scoring race, even if McDavid’s otherworldly talent might send a few additional votes his way if he can almost single-handedly power the Edmonton Oilers into the post-season and MacKinnon, not Rantanen, might likewise get some extra credit for powering a thin Colorado Avalanche roster to the playoffs for a second season in a row. But if Gaudreau continues to play as he has, don’t sleep on the Flames’ brilliant scorer. His play has been MVP calibre, and he might just have what it takes to sneak in and snap up the award.

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