As the Stanley Cup Final gets set for Wednesday, the Conn Smythe Trophy race is as open as Ryan Callahan when you’re blessed with Anton Stalman’s hands and eyes.
Granted, the performance of the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning’s star players over the next fortnight will determine the next Conn Smythe champ, but here is how the race for the post-season MVP stacks up entering Game 1.
5. Steven Stamkos
A slow start points-wise led to speculation that Stamkos may be playing hurt, but he has improved in all areas of the ice, showing the gritty leadership characteristic of a model captain. After just three points in the Detroit series, Stamkos began to play more physical and put up seven points each against the all-world Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist. If the Lightning wins the Cup and the Stamkos line out-performs the Johnson line, the captain could lift two trophies.
4. Patrick Kane
Remember when Kane was supposed to be hampered by a fractured clavicle? Now he’s the leading point-getter on the Western Conference champions. His 10 goals, three game-winners and 20 points place him only one behind Tyler Johnson in each category. With five points in Chicago’s last two games (both of them must-wins) and a history that includes a Cup-clincher, Kane is a good bet.
3. Jonathan Toews
The captain gets serious in the face of elimination, as he proved once again Saturday, scoring twice and setting the tone for a rather decisive Game 7 on enemy ice. Toews is the best all-around centre in the Final, if not the world. His nine goals and 18 points place him top-five in playoff scoring, he logs more ice than any Chicago forward (21:12), he’s won 54.1% of his face-offs, and co-leads the playoffs with two points shorthanded.
2. Tyler Johnson
The Unchosen One has made the 29 of the 30 teams that didn’t draft him feel the sting of regret in these playoffs. Super sophomore Johnson leads all shooters with 21 points, 12 goals and seven multi-point games. He’s the only finalist with a hat trick in the tournament, and four of his goals have been game-winners (also an NHL high). “The bigger the game, the better he plays,” coach Jon Cooper said of his 5-foot-8 monster. So what if young Johnson’s 23.5 shooting percentage isn’t sustainable over the long haul; he wins most of his draws, performs on both special teams, and centres the hottest line of the second season.
1. Duncan Keith
“He’s kind of a freak as far as his metabolism and his conditioning level,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said of his No. 1 defenceman. “The more he plays, the more he gets going.” And he’s been going for a ridiculous average of 31:35 per night over 17 games. Consider this: Keith’s 537:04 time on ice in these playoffs is 69 minutes more than Tampa’s Victor Hedman, the second-busiest man this spring. Keith’s plus-13 rating is a playoff high, all the more remarkable when you consider the 2:24 he spends killing penalties a night. Keith also leads the playoffs in shot attempts (5 on 5) with 89, and his 18 playoff points are seven more than the next most prolific defenceman. Oh, yeah, he also did this:
Dark horse candidates: Nikita Kucherov, Ben Bishop, Anton Stralman, Corey Crawford, Victor Hedman