History was made Wednesday night in Boston, but not just when the St. Louis Blues hoisted the Stanley Cup high above their collective heads for the first time in the franchise’s 52-year history. Yes, that was an NHL first, but so was Ryan O’Reilly’s game-opening goal, and chances are it was that very tally that helped the Blues pivot capture the Conn Smythe Trophy.
To be sure, O’Reilly was on the Conn Smythe radar entering Game 7. In fact, we used this very space on Tuesday to posit that O’Reilly was the frontrunner to be named the post-season most valuable player if the St. Louis Blues went on to win the series- and championship-deciding contest. That wasn’t exactly some Nostradamus-esque soothsaying, of course. O’Reilly had the numbers to support his case, including four goals and seven points through the first six games of the Stanley Cup final and a team-leading 21 post-season points entering the final finale. His case was readymade.
What cemented O’Reilly argument for the Conn Smythe, however, was that his Game 7 goal made him a history-maker in his own right.
Already, he had found twine in the fourth, fifth and sixth games of the series, a pair of which were incredibly meaningful markers. Take his pair in Game 4, for instance. With the Blues facing a potential 3-1 series deficit, O’Reilly scored 43 seconds into the contest and then fired home the game-winning goal in the third frame. His Game 5 goal was also the first of the contest in an eventual 2-1 St. Louis victory. But what makes the Game 7 goal so remarkable is that his deflection of Jay Bouwmeester’s shot, which eluded Boston’s Tuukka Rask, made O’Reilly the first player in league history to score goals in each of the final four games of a seven-game Stanley Cup final. That it was the all-important first goal in a contest which hasn’t historically seen many lead changes made it that much more special. And it appears Conn Smythe voters felt the same.
On Thursday morning, the Professional Hockey Writers Association released the ballots of the 18 media members who were chosen to select the post-season MVP, and O’Reilly was a near consensus first- or second-place finisher on every ballot. Scored on a 5-3-1 rating scale – five points to the first-place selection, three to second, one to third – O’Reilly finished with 78 points. Thirteen of the 18 ballots had O’Reilly in first place, another four had him in second place and only one ballot had O’Reilly in third place. (The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell gave his first-place vote to O’Reilly.)
So, who was O’Reilly’s closest competition? Only one other player received first-place nods: Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington, who finished atop five ballots and with 46 points in Conn Smythe voting. And you can rest assured that his Game 7 performance surely influenced that result. Entering Game 7, Binnington was sporting a .901 SP throughout the series and his round-by-round marks entering Wednesday’s game were a .908 SP against the Winnipeg Jets, a .922 SP against the Dallas Stars and a .912 SP against the San Jose Sharks. He had been good, but by no means great and it could be argued that he hadn’t truly been MVP calibre.
Why the second-place finish then? Well, a few things. First, there’s going to be a bias towards his play in Game 7. It was fresh on the minds of voters, and were it not for Binnington’s performance through the early part of Wednesday’s game, it’s likely the Blues aren’t leading – or at least not ahead 2-0 – at the first intermission. Second, it should be noted that Conn Smythe voting takes place with 10 minutes remaining in the third period. And while we can’t know exactly when the 18 ballots were turned in by each of the voters, what we do know is that Binnington’s ten-bell stop on Boston’s Joakim Nordstrom, a save that prevented the Bruins from making it a 2-1 game, came with 11 minutes remaining. That surely had some influence. Third, and finally, Binnington showed incredible poise bouncing back from bad games with brilliant ones. Game 7 was no different, and his ability to stabilize the Blues is arguably the best reason to select him as the MVP.
That said, it feels like Binnington finishing ahead of Rask, who was on the losing side of the Game 7 battle, flies somewhat in the face of the award’s definition. Unlike in other major sports such as the NFL, which crowns a Super Bowl MVP, and the NBA, which selects a Finals MVP, the Conn Smythe Trophy is supposed to be awarded to the post-season’s MVP. Thus, taking into consideration the entire post-season, Rask was an incredibly deserving candidate – maybe even more so than O’Reilly if social media response in recent days, even from Blues fans, has been any indication.
Despite allowing four goals against in Game 7, not one of which could truly be blamed on the netminder, Rask ended the series with a .912 SP and the post-season with a playoff-best .934 SP. That’s tied for the fifth-best SP of any netminder to appear in at least 15 games in a single playoff in post-lockout history and second-best of any netminder who has guided his team to the final, trailing only his own 2012-13 performance. Furthermore, Rask’s .934 SP is the sixth-best by a losing netminder in the NHL’s entire post-expansion history. So, true as it may be that he wouldn’t have been all that keen on accepting the award, he probably deserved better than four second-place votes and nine third-place nods.
It wasn’t just a three-way dance for the Conn Smythe, however. There were two others who got in on the action: Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo and fellow St. Louis blueliner Colton Parayko. The former led the post-season with 16 assists and finished as the Blues’ third-highest scorer in the post-season with 19 points. That was good for three second-place votes and a single third-place nod. Meanwhile, Parayko finished in second place on two ballots and third on another after his near-perfect execution of a shutdown role against not only the Bruins’ top stars, but those of the Sharks, Stars and Jets before that.
No one topped O’Reilly, though, and his history-on-history outing made him a fitting winner of the Conn Smythe.
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