TAMPA, Fla. -- They’ve been dominating tournaments together for more than a decade.
So as the Tampa Bay Lightning raced home Tuesday morning to beat Hurricane Elsa and prepare for another shot at closing out the Stanley Cup, it did not rank as a major surprise that Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy were considered Conn Smythe co-favourites while they did it.
Except: The two men, born 403 days and nearly 3,000 kilometres apart in Russia, are not always front and centre on a team featuring more stars than anyone else. They finished third (Kucherov) and fourth (Vasilevskiy) in voting for playoff MVP last year despite similarly stellar individual runs.
Recognition comes and goes even if the performance remains steady.
When first they were teammates, Kucherov led the 2011 under-18 world championships in scoring while Vasilevskiy posted the best save percentage. Russia claimed bronze at the event, beating Canada 6-4 after losing to Sweden in the semis, and Kucherov was recognized as the tournament’s top forward.
“He was always special, always super skilled,” said Vasilevskiy. “It’s funny, a lot of the experts and the fake coaches didn’t really believe in him and they’re saying he’ll never be a big star and all of that stuff. But in the end, he’s a great player and one of the best in the NHL. He’s super smart, super skilled, a hard worker. Never satisfied.
“Even after scoring like four or five points, he’s never satisfied, he wants to score six or seven points a game. Just a classic Kuch. Always trying to get better and just pushing himself in the game and practice.
“That’s what makes him the best in the world.”
Whether they play one, two or three more games in this Stanley Cup Final, he’s virtually assured of leading the playoff scoring race for a second straight year. Kucherov has twice as many points as Nick Suzuki, Montreal’s leading point producer, and he’s nine up on teammate Brayden Point entering Wednesday’s game.
Vasilevskiy has been similarly dominant with shutouts in all three of Tampa’s series-clinching games so far. He’s allowed six fewer goals this post-season than Canadiens counterpart Carey Price and has posted a league-best .935 save percentage in the process.
He’s widely considered the NHL’s best goaltender at this stage and appeared destined for greatness since before Tampa drafted him with the 19th overall pick in 2012.
“His work ethic is on a different level. His compete level is as high as it can be,” Kucherov said of Vasilevskiy. “He works all the time on his skill, he’s always in the gym first. Always there before and after practice, working on something that’s going to make him better. And he doesn’t surprise me.
“I remember him when he was 16. He was always the guy that cares about the game and wants to be better and he wants to be No. 1.
“And, as we can see, he is.”
Should the Lightning close out this series in front of their home crowd at Amalie Arena, it’s almost certain that one of those men becomes the third Russian to claim the Conn Smythe, following Evgeni Malkin in 2009 and Alex Ovechkin in 2018.
It would help illustrate what makes this team special: Victor Hedman narrowly edged out Point for the honour last year. And here we are with two different men, and longtime friends, splitting votes now.
Without prompting, Lightning coach Jon Cooper tossed Ryan McDonagh’s name into the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation on Tuesday morning. He acknowledged that it won’t be an easy decision for select members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, who are required to lock in their top three choices by the 10-minute mark of the third period in every potential elimination game.
“Last year it could have been Vasy, Pointer, Kuch, Hedman, a bunch of guys. And this year I feel the same way,” said Cooper. “Everybody’s chipped in. Vasy’s been outstanding. You can go up and down our ‘D corps’ guys, guys that have made an impact and the forwards. Kuch for the way -- oh gosh, he didn’t even play in the regular season and the performance he’s putting on in the playoffs. Pointer and his goal streak.
“And then you look at anybody on the [Yanni] Gourde line. Guys have stepped up and had their moments, but you can’t win without that.”
With the Lightning one win away from a second straight championship, here’s a closer look at the Conn Smythe credentials of the top contenders:
There’s the league-leading 32 points and league-leading 24 assists, but there’s also historical significance to this offensive explosion. Kucherov’s points per game rate of 1.45 would rank eighth all-time among players with at least 20 games played in a post-season and the others to do it are all Hall of Famers: Wayne Gretzky, twice; Mario Lemieux; Doug Gilmour; Joe Sakic; Brian Leetch; and Malkin.
You’ve got a 15-7 record, .935 save percentage and four shutouts -- three of them in series-clinching games, which strengthens the narrative. He’s also faced more shots than any other goaltender this post-season (677 to Price’s 643) and been rock solid while playing every minute during Tampa’s playoff run for the second straight year. Another shutout to clinch the Cup could tilt the voting his way.
The production has dried up during the Stanley Cup Final, but he’s had a dynamite playoff. Point’s nine-game goal streak was one shy of matching Reggie Leach’s NHL record, and his 14 total goals are six more than anyone else has scored. Cooper credited Point for sparking this playoff run with the two late goals he had in Game 1 against Florida to get the Lightning going with an exciting comeback victory.
It’s been a more understated run for last year’s Conn Smythe winner, who has once again played more minutes than any of his teammates during these playoffs. Hedman had a hot stick with 10 goals inside the bubble last year and is clipping along with an impressive .82 points per game this time around. He’s a heartbeat player for the Lightning. Another Cup will help solidify his claim to being the best defenceman of this generation.
Admittedly the longest of long shots, but after getting some shine from Cooper, why not? This has been a turn-back-the-clock playoff for McDonagh, who is second to Hedman in average time on ice (22:48) for the Lightning and has seen more defensive zone starts than any of the team’s blue-liners. Despite that, Tampa has a 26-12 edge in goals during his minutes at 5-on-5.