By Steve Silverman

Bergeron picking up steam for Hart Trophy

Patrice Bergeron has been among the most respected and well-liked players in the NHL for years.

The four-time Selke Trophy winner is known as a player who does everything the right way and is clearly the game’s best 200-foot player.

As fine a player as Bergeron has been since his rookie season in 2003-2004, he has taken it up a couple of steps this year as the Boston Bruins continue to climb in the NHL standings. Bergeron remains the game’s best defensive forward – perhaps within a half-step of the all-time level set by Montreal’s stalwart Hall of Famer Bob Gainey during his career in the 1970s and ‘80’s – and he has upgraded his offensive level this season.

Bergeron centers the No. 1 line in the league that also features right wing David Pastrnak and bad boy left wing Brad Marchand (who returns from his five-game suspension Wednesday night against the New York Rangers), and he has scored 22 goals and 22 assists in 46 games this season. He is plus-24 on the season.

Bergeron has scored 20 or more goals nine times in his career and has tallied 30 or more three times, with a career-high of 32 set in 2015-16. He is on pace to score 35 goals this season.

Much of his productivity comes from his work on the power play. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has Bergeron manning the bumper position, and he is shooting the puck more frequently and more effectively than he has in the past.

That has been one flaw that has previously been associated with Bergeron’s game. He has been way too unselfish in the past, choosing to pass when he has the puck in prime shooting position. He has not gotten rid of this habit completely, but he is thinking shot when he gets the puck between the circles on the power play.

Bergeron’s signature strength is his ability to dominate the face-off circle, and he has won 56.5 percent of the draws he has taken.

Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill has thrown his full support for Bergeron winning the MVP award.

“Bergeron, for me, has probably been the best player in the league for the season up to now,” Blashill said Tuesday prior to Boston’s 3-2 victory over the Red Wings. “There are others like (Tampa Bay’s Nikita) Kucherov that you could make arguments for, but I think he has had as big an impact on winning as anyone in the league.”

The Bruins are bearing down on Tampa Bay for the best record in the league, and they will have a shot at winning the Presidents Trophy as having the league’s best regular-season record.

That’s not Bergeron’s goal, and neither is winning the Hart Trophy. He wants to win his second Stanley Cup – the Bruins were victorious in 2010-11 – and he is playing the best hockey of his NHL career.

He may very well get the Hart Trophy as a result of his sensational play on both ends of the ice.

gettyimages 910355172 Is Bergeron A Favorite For The Hart Trophy?

Viktor Arvidsson #33 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his short handed goal with teammate P.K. Subban #76. Credit: Elsa/Getty Images

Preds making their move

The Nashville Predators raised their profile with their run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.

While they fell short against the Pittsburgh Penguins, head coach Peter Laviolette’s team is no longer just happy to make the playoffs and get past the first round.

The Preds are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, and they are showing the kind of depth that could allow them to go deep into the playoffs once again.

Kevin Fiala is coming off a two-goal game in Monday’s victory over the New York Islanders, and he is tied for the team lead (17 goals) with Viktor Avidsson. Filip Forsberg and Craig Smith are right behind with 16 goals each.

Fiala has scored two goals in three of his last seven games, and he is threatening to become the Preds’ go-to scorer, although Arvidsson is not going to give that title away without a fight.

Fiala was the Preds’ first-round draft choice in 2014 and was the 11th pick overall. He barely gave a hint of his ability last year when he scored 11 goals and five assists in 54 games, but he has been consistent and determined with 17 goals and 18 assists from his spot at left wing this season.

The Preds are chasing the surprising Winnipeg Jets, and the combination of their versatile and deep offense, powerful blue-line crew and Pekka Rinne’s goaltending, may make the Preds the team to beat in the Western Conference.

Unheralded Americans will try to claim spotlight in Pyeongchang

There are no NHL stars competing in the Winter Olympics, and that may turn the ice hockey competition into something of a side show instead of the main highlight of the competition.

However, it could also turn the hockey tournament into an opportunity for some of the non-stars to turn themselves into household names.

Former NHL star Brian Gionta is the most well-known player on the team, and he scored 289 goals and 299 assists in his 15-yeard career with the Devils, Canadiens and Sabres.

However, younger players like Ryan Donato of Harvard, Jordan Greenway of Boston University, Troy Terry of the University of Denver and defensemen Will Borgen of St. Cloud State are the young college players who made the team, and they are the ones who have a chance to emerge as stars.

All of these youngsters have NHL futures.

Forget about the medal projections you have seen for hockey. Nearly all the teams, with the possible exception of the team representing Russian athletes (there is no Team Russia), are difficult to project.

But the unheralded U.S. team has a chance to be competitive, and if it can get into the medal round, it could provide the hottest story of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Numbers, we have numbers

Nikita Kucherov remains the NHL’s leading scorer with 66 points, but he could get overtaken within the next few days. Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins are right behind with  65 and 62 points, while Jakub Voracek also has 62 points. … No surprise that Alex Ovechkin is on top in goal scoring with 32, while Malkin has 30. William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights has 28 goals, while Nikita Kucherov, John Tavares, Sean Couturier and Anders Lee all have 27 goals. … Carter Hutton has a league-leading .943 save percentage, followed by Marc-Andre Fleury of the Golden Knights at .935. … The Penguins are converting a league-leading 26.8 percent of their power-play opportunities, while the Kings have the No. 1 penalty-killing unit, stopping 85.5 percent of their short-handed situations.

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