By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- With most of the U.S. living through its annual case of March Madness, glued to the NCAA men's basketball tournament over the weekend, Bruins forward Brad Marchand paid tribute to the hoops hysteria on Sunday.
Marchand beat the Minnesota Wild with a slam dunk.
For most players a wrist shot from the left dot on the rush wouldn't be considered as automatic as a Jayson Tatum 1-foot lay-in. But Brad Marchand in 3-on-3 overtime may as well be tapping the puck in from the blue paint when he's firing away from one of his favorite places in the attacking zone to shoot.
With his 33rd goal of the season and 12th career regular-season overtime goal, Marchand did more than provide the Bruins with their second straight dramatic win during what's turning out to be a highly successful road trip (they're 2-0-1 with the finale coming up Tuesday in Winnipeg). He also sent a message to the national television audience that it's time to seriously put him in what hockey media cognoscenti love to call the "Hart Trophy conversation." (It has to be a "conversation," not a debate, talk or argument, because then it's not official).
The Bruins knew from Day One of this season that March would be their stiffest challenge of the season. They built up a hearty stock of standings points and solidified their hold on second place in the Atlantic Division before they began their 16-game-in-31-days trudge. Until Sunday they'd played without Patrice Bergeron for the entire month. They've been without Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, David Backes, Rick Nash and Jake DeBrusk for a significant portion of the calendar year's third month. There are still a few days and three games left before the calendar turns, but the Bruins have more than survived the challenge with a 9-2-2 run that's put them within two points of Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic.
And what's been the one constant during this drive to the top (with the exception of one game missed because of injury)? Brad Marchand, who now has 80 points in 60 games, second in points-per-game to Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon.
Either because of blind devotion to him or in an effort to spice up the Hart conversation, many have elevated Edmonton's Connor McDavid to contender status. While playing out the string with the disappointing Oilers, McDavid has taken over the Art Ross Trophy lead with 99 points by erupting for 24 points in 13 games in March. Right behind him, in one fewer game, Marchand has 22 points this month playing games that matter in the standings, not in the Ping-Pong ball count. McDavid is an elite talent who's expected to put up points, but he wasn't able to will his team to enough victories to even stay in the playoff race before the season's next-to-last month despite the availability of loser points and a playoff system that makes it easier to qualify for the playoffs in Edmonton's Pacific Division.
MacKinnon is a worthy suitor for the Hart and might wind up being the winner once the ballots are counted and the results are announced in June. No one expected the Avalanche to be within sniffing distance of the playoffs at this point of the season, and they're sitting in a Western Conference wild card spot. He's had a breakout season with 92 points in 67 games and is right there in the March scoring race with 21 points in 12 games. Of all the Hart contenders, he's probably produced with the least assistance from his supporting cast. But like Marchand, he's missed time with injuries. No one's discounting his status as a MVP contender because of it.
If ever there was a stat to make up for the games Marchand missed, it's the overtime goals. His five extra-session goals ties the single-season NHL record co-held by Steven Stamkos (2011-12), Jonathan Toews (2015-16) and Alex Galchenyuk (2016-17) (what?!?). Marchand not only scores the big goals; when he's in the extra session, the opposition rarely even touches the puck. His chemistry with defenseman Torey Krug, who deserves credit for a perfect indirect pass to Marchand in Minnesota, might come close to matching the chemistry Marchand and Bergeron have enjoyed for years.
There may be better candidates than Marchand, McDavid or MacKinnon. Evgeni Malkin has been a beast again this year, Alex Ovechkin should always be in the conversation and Nikita Kucherov has been a steady point machine from the first drop of the puck this season. There might even be a goaltender or two worthy of consideration.
But there's no legitimate reason to discount what Marchand has done this season in light of his injuries or his suspension. Ovechkin served the first of his three career suspensions in 2008-09, but still won the Hart Trophy for the second of his three times. Malkin was fined by the Department of Player Safety this season and has had other run-ins with the law.
There's no precedent for league discipline keeping a player from winning a major award, and to penalize Marchand and keep him out of the Hart conversation after his remarkable season would just be pure madness.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.
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