Hockey fans were treated to nine consecutive days of non-stop games that resulted in several series upsets, some intriguing round-robin results and a plethora of highlight-reel goals, hits and saves.
Perhaps most important of all was the zero positive COVID tests that came back from the thousands of tests administered in the bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
There were some memorable individual performances, too, so even though the Stanley Cup Playoffs haven’t officially started we’ve decided to rank the top Conn Smythe Trophy candidates following the qualifying round.
If you’re a gambler you would have noticed the under frequently hit, so it shouldn’t surprise you that there are a number of goalies on the list.
1. Carey Price, G, Montreal Canadiens
Pittsburgh’s biggest fear came to fruition. Playing a .500 team that had no business being in the playoffs shouldn’t have been a problem – on paper – but since that team could lean on perhaps the best goalie in the sport it became an entirely different task. Price finished the series with a .947 save percentage and 1.67 GAA and a shutout. Price is so good at handling the puck and passing it’s like having a third defenceman on the ice at all times. He also plays with some feistiness – just watch his battles with Sidney Crosby in front of the net – yet is able to remain poised.
“We know we backed in and nobody gave us a chance, but we took that with a grain of salt and proved them wrong,” Price said after blanking the Penguins in the series-clinching game.
2. Sebastian Aho, C, Carolina Hurricanes
Aho had 38 goals in the regular season (sixth most in the league) and picked up where he left off in the post-season. The Finnish star notched eight points in Carolina’s three-game sweep of the New York Rangers and is a threat at both ends of the ice every shift.
Connor McDavid’s ridiculous goal against the Blackhawks got heaps of praise and for good reason, but Aho definitely had the runner up for best goal of the qualifying round when he won a puck battle against Jacob Trouba, absolutely undressed Tony DeAngelo and beat Igor Shesterkin backhand. Phenomenal.
3. Darcy Kuemper, G, Arizona Coyotes
Kuemper’s .933 save percentage and 2.77 GAA don’t do his performance justice. He faced more shots than any goalie in the qualifying round, averaged 38 saves per start, and kept his team in games when Nashville was pouring on the pressure. He takes away the bottom of the net extremely effectively, so unless he’s screened or there’s a tip you have to beat him up high. Kuemper finished fifth in Vezina voting last season and put up a career-best .928 save percentage and 2.22 GAA this season, though he missed time with injuries both years, and we saw what he’s capable of against the Preds. He’ll likely need to be his team’s best player if they hope to upset the Avalanche.
4. Jonathan Toews, C, Chicago Blackhawks
Toews won the Conn Smythe Trophy a decade ago in his third season and the Chicago captain turned back the clock with a dominant series against Edmonton. Fellow former Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith also had a strong showing versus the Oilers but it was Toews who led the way as the Blackhawks pulled off the upset. He finished with four goals and added three assists while winning 55.3 per cent of his faceoffs. When Toews is winning puck battles down low, look out.
5. Cam Talbot, G, Calgary Flames
Sure, he didn’t have to deal with a fully healthy Winnipeg offence after Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine went down with injuries, but Talbot brought his A-game against the Jets. Flames head coach Geoff Ward said his goalie was the series MVP after posting a .945 save percentage and 1.51 GAA in four starts.
“It was a huge confidence boost for me when the coaching staff and the guys had the confidence in me to go with me in Game 1,” Talbot said. “I just tried to go in and give us a chance to win and make that decision look like a good one. I’ve got to thank them for that opportunity, and I’m trying to take it and run with it for now.”
6. Mark Stone, RW, Vegas Golden Knights
He’s a possession beast who a had team-high five points to go with an impressive 65.8 Corsi For percentage. The Golden Knights appear to be once again a legitimate Cup contender and Stone has been the team’s best player. He wasn’t around during Vegas’s magical inaugural season but he shone with them in the playoffs last year before that heartbreaking, controversial Round 1 exit. Through 10 total playoff games in a Golden Knights uniform, Stone has eight goals and 17 points while also dominating defensively.
7. Carter Hart, G, Philadelphia Flyers
The sophomore netminder started two of Philly’s three round robin games, stopping 57 of 59 shots faced. The soon-to-be 22-year-old stopped Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn on breakaways, which went a long way towards Philly securing top spot in the East. He shows patience and skill well beyond his years and now faces his childhood hero, Carey Price, in a battle of two of Canada’s best goalies.
The 23-year-old Isles winger writes “Have Fun” on his stick and he did just that against the Panthers. Beauvillier recorded points in each qualifying round game, including two clutch goals in the deciding Game 4.
“I just think right now that Beau is just enjoying playing good hockey, and he’s getting rewarded for it with production,” Barry Trotz said. “He is skating on the puck, he’s working, he’s just focused on his job in that moment. I think that’s the maturity of a good young player in Beau.”
Honourable mentions: Joonas Korpisalo, Jacob Markstrom, Sean Monahan, Andrei Svechnikov, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Shea Weber, Quinn Hughes, Ryan O’Reilly