As is common in the aftermath of most post-season eliminations, we’re left wondering what could have been if things had been slightly different. In this instance, that what-ifs pertain to the San Jose Sharks, and there are a lot of them
The biggest, no doubt, concerns the health of Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, all three of whom were unable to participate in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. We’ll never know, of course, but the ripple effect of the Sharks being unable to ice a healthy roster in the final game of the series and closing out Game 5 with a banged-up lineup is that we’re left questioning what could or would have been in the final for Logan Couture, who was on an absolute tear through much of the post-season.
Through 20 playoff games, Couture was the most lethal Shark. His 14 goals were the most of any player in the post-season, his 20 points the top mark among all scorers. Yet, it wasn’t enough. When the Western Conference final got down to its most pivotal games – the fourth, fifth and sixth of the series – Couture was held off the scoresheet by the St. Louis Blues, and the Sharks, battered and bruised, were sent packing in six games. Thus, one of the early post-season favorites to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy has been eliminated.
So, who does that leave? With the final on the horizon and the Blues and Boston Bruins preparing to begin their tete-a-tete for the Stanley Cup come Monday, here are the top-five candidates for playoff MVP:
5. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
There’s usually a defender in the mix for the Conn Smythe, and entering the final, Pietrangelo is almost inarguably the frontrunner among the blueliners.
Unsurprisingly, it’s offense that puts Pietrangelo atop the list of rearguards. With two goals, Pietrangelo is tied for second among final-bound defenders, one behind Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. The Blues top defender is, however, the top-scoring defenseman among those left standing. His 13 points are one more than Bruins blueliner Torey Krug’s 12 points and two clear of teammate Colton Parayko. Pietrangelo’s on-ice goals for percentage should also work in his favor. At 5-on-5, where he has skated the third-most minutes of any defenseman entering the final, he has a 60.6 goals for percentage to go along with positive Corsi, shot and scoring chance percentages. He’s been reliable while playing against top competition, and the offense gives him an added edge.
4. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
From a pure offensive perspective, Bergeron’s case is somewhat difficult to make. By no means has he been poor in the playoffs, but his eight goals and 13 points are ninth among players entering the final and he’s only narrowly outscoring Krug and Charlie Coyle. So, sure, Bergeron has been good, but he’s not putting up clear-cut Conn Smythe numbers in the base statistical categories.
One really gets a feel for Bergeron’s impact this post-season, though, when you dig into his underlying numbers, and the hope is Conn Smythe voters at least consider his impact in that regard. Entering the final, Bergeron has excellent 5-on-5 shots, Corsi, scoring chances and high-danger chances percentages. But let’s ignore those for the sake of brevity and instead point out two numbers: he has a 69.2 goals for percentage and a 57.4 expected goals for percentage at five-a-side. He has tilted the ice in the Bruins’ favor every time he touches the ice.
3. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins
Love him or hate him, and we can safely suggest that there are far more hockey fans outside of Boston who fall into the latter category, Marchand has earned himself a spot as one of the top contenders for the Conn Smythe. Despite toeing the line with his antics from time to time, Marchand continues to prove his value as an offensive contributor and has followed up his career-high 100-point regular season with seven goals and 18 points in 17 playoffs games through three rounds.
Marchand has also been a workhorse for Boston. He’s skating nearly two minutes per game on the Bruins’ penalty kill, which is clipping along at 86.3 percent. He’s seeing 3:24 per game with the man advantage for Boston, which leads all forwards on what has been the playoff’s best power play team. And Marchand’s overall average ice time, 20:36, is nearly 90 seconds clear of the 19:10 Bergeron is skating per outing. The Bruins are leaning hard on Marchand. And he’s delivering, whether you like it or not.
2. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Bruins fans might be upset with the ranking here – Marchand has two more points than Schwartz despite playing two fewer games – but the 2017-18 Conn Smythe provides the reasoning for placing the Blues’ top scorer ahead of the Bruins’ leading man. Last post-season, Alex Ovechkin captured playoff MVP honors despite scoring five fewer points than Evgeny Kuznetsov. Where Ovechkin had the edge, though, was in the goal department. He scored 15 to Kuznetsov’s dozen. This is to say that Schwartz, who has 12 goals, including two hat tricks and a pair of game-winners, leapfrogs Marchand into second spot in the Conn Smythe hierarchy based on goal-scoring and goal-scoring alone.
Schwartz can really put a stamp on his case if he continues to find twine in the final, and the perception of his scoring feats will get an added boost if he surpasses Brett Hull’s St. Louis franchise-best 13 playoff goals, which was set nearly 30 years ago.
1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Right now, it’s Rask’s Conn Smythe to lose. Through 17 games this post-season, Rask has been downright dominant. The Bruins keeper has a remarkable .942 save percentage, 1.84 goals-against average and two shutouts – the first in Game 6 of Round 2, the second in Game 4 of Round 3, both of which were series-deciding games – across more than 1,000 minutes of play.
To put that into context, there were 60 goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season, and Ben Bishop’s .934 SP was the best among all of those netminders. Historically, too, Rask’s numbers are eye-popping. Right now, his numbers are better than Tim Thomas’ were during his Conn Smythe- and Stanley Cup-winning campaign with the Bruins in 2010-11 and only three goaltenders in NHL history have posted a better mark across 1,000 playoff minutes: Mike Smith with the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2011-12, Jean-Sebastien Giguere with the Anaheim Ducks in 2002-03 and Jonathan Quick with the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12.
If Rask keeps his numbers in the same range throughout the final, there’s a decent chance he earns the Conn Smythe no matter the result. That said, it will mean an awful lot more to Rask if he can pair the MVP hardware with a Stanley Cup.
Honorable Mentions: David Pastrnak (BOS); David Krejci (BOS); Vladimir Tarasenko (STL); Ryan O’Reilly (STL)
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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