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Stars of epic Hart race are up and down in the playoffs

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Most NHL scoring records and rare feats inevitably trace back to Wayne Gretzky. He was the last MVP of a regular season to earn the parallel playoff honor. The Oilers icon took home the Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies in 1985, plus the Stanley Cup, by collecting 255 points (seriously) across both phases of the schedule.

We're a long way from knowing the next winner of either award, partly because the Hart race was a bloodbath. No identifiable favorite, much less a shoo-in, headlines the stacked field. The outlandish stats of four superstar forwards - Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, and Auston Matthews - created an epic competition.

Around the league, average goal-scoring slipped to a three-year low, but the top of the player leaderboard recalled Gretzky's freewheeling era.

This was the first year since 1996 to feature a 70-goal chase. Two playmakers dished 100 assists for the first time since Gretzky and Mario Lemieux did in 1989. MacKinnon was the second player this century, mirroring McDavid last year, to achieve the 50-goal, 80-helper combo.

Prizing that balance, theScore's mock panel cast first-place votes for MacKinnon on five of six MVP ballots. Everyone in the quartet placed second on a ballot, reflecting the difficulty of the choice. The snub of a compelling candidate will irk fans when the three actual Hart finalists are announced May 7.

Paul Swanson / NHL / Getty Images

In the meantime, the postseason is a blank canvas. Point counts reset, and the expectation to dominate intensifies. The fortunes of the Hart protagonists diverged in the past week. Huge Game 3 wins Friday lifted McDavid's Oilers and MacKinnon's Avalanche to 2-1 series leads, while Matthews' Maple Leafs (down 2-1 to Bruins) and Kucherov's Lightning (winless in three against Panthers) face deficits.

On a mission to crush the Kings, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl both raised their career playoff scoring averages to 1.62 points, vaulting Lemieux for second all time. McDavid's turbocharged dangles and assertive cuts to the net open lanes for filthy passes to Zach Hyman, who's already bagged six goals. The puck movement of the Oilers' power play makes heads swivel. That unit's absurd 7-for-14 conversion rate has offset Edmonton's defensive lapses.

MacKinnon and his quick-strike supporting cast deluged the Jets in the third frame of Friday's 6-2 rout. MacKinnon showed off his breathtaking acceleration, had several grade A chances on eight shots, and snapped one through Connor Hellebuyck's legs. The run-and-gun Avalanche are winning the stylistic clash against the league's stoutest defense. Until this matchup, Hellebuyck had never let in 15 goals in a three-game stretch in his NHL career.

Michael Martin / NHL / Getty Images

Matthews' performance typifies Toronto in the postseason: there are two letdowns for every triumph. His clutch breakaway deke and pair of primary assists buried the Bruins in Game 2, but the Leafs stank in the opener and shriveled down the stretch of a close-fought Game 3. They've been outscored 5-1 on special teams. Jeremy Swayman's save percentage for Boston is .955.

Swayman and rotation partner Linus Ullmark have stoned 15 of Matthews' NHL-high 16 shots. He clanged a post in each Leafs loss - once on an open net, once on a two-on-one. He's engaged physically, throwing one fewer hit (17) than postseason leader Ryan Reaves, but his challenge will be to snipe as pressure escalates in the series. Matthews has two goals and seven points over 11 previous playoff games in which Toronto's been at risk of elimination.

In the lopsided Battle of Florida, the Panthers stripped Kucherov of the puck ahead of a breakaway or odd-man rush in all three Lightning defeats. The TNT broadcast crew repeatedly pointed out his visible dejection and frustration in Game 3 but predicted he'd start to dazzle soon.

If he does, it'll probably be too late. Kucherov's assists on three Steven Stamkos goals in the series failed to jolt a battle-tested former champion that looks unusually tentative and a step slow. In the Florida net, Sergei Bobrovsky keeps robbing Lightning shooters on Kucherov's patented cross-ice setups. The NHL's fifth 3-0 comeback won't be possible unless he responds with several multi-point efforts.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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