SIMMONS: Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid are suddenly deep in Hart Trophy race

So here they are again, side by side in the hockey world, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the best player in the game and the best goal scorer in the game, back in the running for the Hart Trophy.

They are the best Canadian and American in hockey. They are the two biggest names, most marketable names, in the National Hockey League.

McDavid won the Most Valuable Player award last year. Matthews was MVP the year before that. This season didn’t begin like either would necessarily factor in the Hart voting – only now after 50-some games they are right there.

Right there in a crowded field with the exceptional Nathan MacKinnon of Colorado, with league-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov of Tampa Bay, with the incomparable David Pastrnak of Boston, with the indefatigable pairing of Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart in Florida, with the too often disregarded pairing of Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson of Vancouver.

And with 30 some games to play in the season, and Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh and Artemi Panarin of the Rangers not necessarily included here, this may well be the deepest Hart Trophy race in years.

This begins with McDavid, where everything in hockey begins at the top. He already has three Hart Trophies. This year would make four. Over the past 20 games, McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers have won 17 games, the best record in the NHL in that time, and McDavid has scored 37 points in those games.

Only one NHL player over the past 20 games – the surprising Tkachuk – has scored more with 38 points as the blazing hot Panthers have won 15 of their past 20 games.

Matthews has been on a binge, scoring 19 goals in the past 20 games for the Leafs. Those are crazy numbers but they are modern era, any era, all-time great numbers. The Leafs have not performed as a team the way Edmonton has or Florida has – even in this impressive run without Morgan Rielly on defence – but if Matthews continues to score at record pace how do you ignore him in Hart balloting?

That’s the difficulty this year. How do you ignore Kucherov, who has led the league in scoring all season long? How do you ignore MacKinnon, with Colorado cruising its way into the playoffs? How do you ignore Pastrnak, who lost his centre, Patrice Bergeron, to retirement, and hasn’t missed a scoring beat? He has more points than Matthews on the season and more over the last 20 games.

The quality of player at the top of the National Hockey League may be as great and deep as it’s ever been.

But there’s nothing quite like this unofficial rivalry between cities and teams and top players – as friendly as both sides may be – in the McDavid-Matthews, Toronto-Edmonton talk. The NHL loves this. It’s one of the reasons why the Olympics of 2026 and even the unnecessary Four Nations tournament next winter will be highlighted by Team Canada and Team USA. By McDavid and Matthews.

The most explosive skater in the game and the most explosive shooter. The contrast is stark yet breathtaking.

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As great as McDavid has been of late – his season and the Oilers season did not start well – the hockey intellect that is Kucherov has been with him step for step. Without skating like McDavid.

Kucherov is the closest thing in hockey to Patrick Mahomes. He invents new ways to play on the ice. He uses angles no one else uses. He finds open receivers and passes like no one else. He, too, has won a scoring title and a Hart Trophy in his past.

And over the past 20 games, the most recent quarter, he’s scored 36 points, the brilliant McDavid has one more 37 and the rather thin Tampa Bay Lightning have won 13 of their past 20 games.

McDavid, Tkachuk and McKinnon were the Hart Trophy finalists last year. When Matthews won the Hart in 2022, he was up against McDavid and Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. The year before, when McDavid won his second, he was up against Matthews and MacKinnon.

The same names keep popping up year after year, only the field has deepened now with the addition of Sam Reinhart in Florida, who is second in the NHL in goal scorer and second behind Matthews in goal scoring over the past 20 games. And if the MVP is supposed to go to the best player on the best team – that doesn’t always happen – then you have to decide who the best player on the Vancouver Canucks is.

Is that Pettersson or is that the defenceman Hughes? And will they be the best team at the end of the regular season?

And where would Pettersson and Hughes rank right now against McDavid, Matthews, Tkachuk, Kucherov, McKinnon, Pastrnak? Over the past 20 games, Hughes has 19 assists, Pettersson has 15 goals and 29 points. Those numbers are awfully impressive.

That’s what makes the next 30 games – the next two months of regular season hockey – individually fascinating. The playoff races may not be what the NHL wants them to be, especially in the Western Conference but the battle for MVP, best player in hockey, will be determined between now and mid-April.

A vote or a belief today doesn’t matter much big picture. To get to three finalists from this bunch will be a treat and a challenge to determine.

Will it be McDavid or Matthews or MacKinnon or Kucherov or Tkachuk or Pastrnak or Pettersson? Or will it be a longshot like Reinhart or Sidney Crosby or New York’s Artemi Panarin?

Let the play happen and let the lobbying begin.

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