Two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are in the books, and with the Eastern and Western Conference Finals upon us, the race for the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP is starting to take shape. By this point of the postseason, there tend to be a small handful of players from each of the remaining teams that can make a strong case to be the most valuable player of the playoffs. Before the puck drops on each of the Conference Finals, it’s time to take a look at the top three candidates from each of the final four teams as well as an honorable mention candidate or two that I believe are the most worthy of being the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ MVP up to this point.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Ben Bishop – While the Lightning have multiple contributors that have come up large in this year’s playoffs, nobody has come up larger than the Lightning’s star goaltender and Vezina Trophy finalist. Bishop has gone 8-2 through the first two rounds, putting up stellar numbers in the form of a .938 save percentage and a 1.89 goals-against average to go along with two shutouts. Bishop has five career playoff shutouts, with four of them coming in elimination games. Two of those occurred in each of the Lightning’s first two series, as Bishop has come up big on multiple occasions. His four series-clinching shutouts are just one behind the all-time mark held by Chris Osgood. Who is Bishop tied with in that department? Jacques Plante and Martin Brodeur, who are two of the all-time greats. That’s incredible company. In the instances when the Lightning haven’t played well, Bishop has been their rock.
Nikita Kucherov – In last year’s playoffs, it was Tyler Johnson who stepped up and delivered in clutch situations time and time again for Tampa Bay. This year, Kucherov has taken the mantle of big-game performer and run with it, sitting in a tie for first-place in the entire NHL with nine goals so far in the playoffs to go along with three assists. All four of Kucherov’s goals in the second round against the New York Islanders were scored in the third period, including the tying goals in both Games 3 and 4, leading to a pair of overtime wins for the Lightning in both of those games. When the Bolts have needed offense, Kucherov has been outstanding in stepping up in the absence of the injured Steven Stamkos.
Victor Hedman – After tallying just one point in the Lightning’s five-game series win over Detroit in the first round and playing a couple of games that weren’t up to his standard, Hedman’s game hit a whole different level in the second round. Against the Islanders, Hedman tallied four goals and four assists, with his eight total points setting a new Lightning record for most points in a playoff series by a defenseman. He’s also the first defenseman in the NHL to post at least four goals and four assists in a playoff series since Sergei Zubov did it for Dallas in 2003. What’s even more impressive is how he has done it without the help of his regular defense partner, the injured Anton Stralman, while also averaging 27:30 of ice time per game. Hedman’s two-way play has always been stellar for the Lightning, but with the increased offensive production, don’t be surprised if he moves further up this list if the Bolts advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Honorable Mention: Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson
Matt Murray – Over the last two months of the regular season, the Penguins were the hottest team in hockey, going 23-8-1 from February 6th to the beginning of the playoffs. But when starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion on March 31st, the goaltending position became a question mark due to the inexperience of Murray and Jeff Zatkoff. Murray was injured for the first two games of the opening round, but returned to the Pens’ net for Game 3 against the Rangers. The 21-year-old Murray hasn’t given the job back, going 7-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average, a .935 save percentage, and one shutout. His play has allowed the Pens’ speedy, aggressive style of play to flourish, as they’ve not had such quality goaltending in the postseason since they last raised the Stanley Cup in 2009. Murray has been so good that it has raised questions of whether or not the 31-year-old Fleury will be expendable once the season ends.
Kris Letang – The Penguins’ star defenseman was an under-the-radar candidate for the Norris Trophy this season despite not being nominated, and his play has been stellar so far in the postseason. Despite sitting out one game due to a suspension for an illegal check to Washington’s Marcus Johansson, Letang has a goal and seven assists while being a plus-7, the fifth-highest plus-minus rating in the NHL during the playoffs. All of this while playing an absurd 29:26 a night. Letang has been a two-way force for Pittsburgh and continues to play all heavy minutes in all situations. Much like Victor Hedman, he’s a player that drives possession and is heavily relied upon on their blue line.
Phil Kessel – While Kessel had a solid regular season, he has stepped up his game since the playoffs began, tallying a team-high 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists) in 11 games. While he’s not usually mentioned as a guy that’s a big-time playoff performer, Kessel is actually a point-per-game player in the postseason, having notched 33 points in 33 career postseason contests. He’s been a winger on a line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, and that trio has been Pittsburgh’s best line in the playoffs. Yeah, you read that right, a line that doesn’t have either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin has not been the Pens’ best. Four of Kessel’s five goals have come on the power play, and he leads the team with 43 shots on goal. In Game 6 of their second-round series against Washington, Kessel scored the first two goals of the game and chipped in an assist on Bonino’s series-winning goal in overtime after Pittsburgh had blown a three-goal lead.
Honorable Mention: Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Brian Elliott – Although his stats aren’t as eye-popping as those of Bishop or Murray (2.29 goals-against average, .929 save percentage), his play between the pipes has been the biggest reason for St. Louis’s run to the Western Conference Finals. Whenever Elliott has had a bad game in the playoffs, he’s bounced back the following game, and his timely saves have come at important times. The Blues have been out-shot in 10 of their 14 playoff games up to this point, and while they certainly haven’t been hanging on for dear life by only relying on their goaltending, having someone reliable in the crease has been a huge difference in getting bounced in the first round the previous three years and making it to the conference finals for the first time since 2001. The biggest example? In two Game 7’s, Elliott has stopped a combined 62 of 65 shots. That’s what we call clutch goaltending.
David Backes – The longest-tenured player on the team, Backes has been a huge contributor at both ends of the ice during the postseason. He’s third on the team in scoring so far in the playoffs with 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists), but it’s the timeliness of his goals that have been so crucial to the Blues’ success. Three of his goals have been game-winners, with two of them coming in overtime. He also chipped in an early second-period goal in Game 7 against Dallas that put them up 4-0, effectively slamming the final nail in the coffin on the Stars’ season. Every team in the postseason needs guys that can provide grit to go along with timely goals, and the Blues’ captain has provided that for his team in spades.
Vladimir Tarasenko – Tarasenko is tied for the team lead with 13 points in 14 games so far in the postseason, including a team-high seven goals. He’s been a tremendous playoff player in his career, with 17 goals and 24 points in 27 career postseason contests. He leads the team in shots on goal with 47 and has been a dangerous weapon for St. Louis. What’s more impressive about his goal total is that six of his seven goals have come at even strength. Along with guys like Backes that provide the grit, you need your star players to be your star players when it matters most, and Tarasenko has been a big part of this team’s success up to this point.
Honorable Mention: Robby Fabbri, Troy Brouwer
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Brent Burns – One of three finalists for the Norris Trophy for best defenseman, Burns has continued his electrifying play in the playoffs, sitting second on both the team and the NHL in points with 15 (4 goals, 11 assists) while leading the team in shots on goal and ice time. Burns has been known more for his offensive prowess, but he’s been a force at both ends of the rink in the playoffs. However, his offensive production from the back end is still his bread and butter, and the Kings and Predators have been unable to contain him in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Even though I have him listed as the Sharks’ top candidate for the Conn Smythe, I also have him as a Top-5 candidate for the award in the entire league. He’s been that good for San Jose in the postseason.
Joe Pavelski – The Sharks’ captain is currently tied with Tampa Bay’s Kucherov for the NHL lead in postseason goals with nine, to go along with four assists. He leads the Sharks with three game-winning goals, which is also tied for the most in the league in that department, and he’s also tallied four multi-point games in the postseason. Pavelski has always been one of the more underrated pure goal scorers in the NHL, but his play has brought him to the forefront of the league’s attention so far in the postseason. He may not be the most spectacular star player, but he always finds a way to get open and convert scoring opportunities. When the Sharks have needed a clutch goal at an important time, Pavelski has usually been the one to deliver.
Logan Couture – The 27-year-old center leads the league in playoff scoring with 17 points on the strength of seven goals and 10 assists, and is coming off a three-point effort against Nashville in a 5-0 Game 7 victory. Eleven of Couture’s 17 points came in the second round against the Predators, and he’s notched five multi-point games in the postseason. Couture has also picked up a pair of game-winning goals, and when San Jose has gone on the power play, he has been lethal. Four of Couture’s seven playoff goals have come on the man-advantage, as he has shown to be a tremendous power play contributor for a team that has been successful on the power play at an astonishing rate of 30.9%.
Honorable Mention: Joe Thornton, Martin Jones
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