The sky is blue. Water is wet. And if the Boston Bruins win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, and with it the sport’s ultimate prize, Tuukka Rask’s name will be engraved on the Conn Smythe Trophy.
What Rask has done throughout this post-season has been nothing short of remarkable. Across the board, he is the playoffs’ goaltending leader. His .938 save percentage? Tops among any keeper who has skated in this post-season. His 1.93 goals-against average? Again, the best of all masked men. And his two shutouts put him into a tie with Petr Mrazek for the best mark among all netminders. The product of Rask’s play, of course, is not only that he has guided Boston to within one victory of the Stanley Cup – which would be Rask’s second NHL crown and first as a starting goaltender – but that he has made himself a virtual lock and the prohibitive favorite to win the Conn Smythe should the Bruins win Game 7. It’s a true no-brainer, so much so that he will very likely clean-sweep voting in such a scenario.
But what if Boston loses? What if the St. Louis Blues complete the worst-to-first tale?
Well, then things get interesting and there’s a conversation to be had about who wins the Conn Smythe.
Unlike the Bruins, the Blues don’t have a clear-cut, no-doubt frontrunner for the award. Instead, there are several players in the mix, each with various post-season accomplishments that could be deemed worthy of the Conn Smythe. Not only that, but the way in which St. Louis hypothetically wins the Stanley Cup could impact MVP voting. Is it by way of a brilliant goaltending performance? Does a sharpshooter manage a multi-goal game at just the right time? Or does a defender step up, shut down the Bruins’ top stars and chip in a couple of points en route to a Game 7 victory?
We won’t know how the series-deciding game shakes out until Wednesday night, but if the Blues do win the Stanley Cup, here are several potential Conn Smythe winners, in order of least-to-most likely:
7. Jaden Schwartz
Schwartz was a legitimate frontrunner for the award all the way through to the Stanley Cup final. He almost singlehandedly broke the Winnipeg Jets’ backs in the first round, scoring a devastating dying-seconds winner in Game 5 before netting a natural hat trick in Game 6. Then he scored four goals and six points in seven games against the Dallas Stars and followed that up with three goals and four points against the San Jose Sharks. Against Boston, though, Schwartz has been quiet. We’re talking two-assists-and-that’s-it quiet. One big game will put him back on the radar, but he’s been surpassed.
6. Colton Parayko
Shutdown defenders rarely get the love they deserve, but Parayko has been excellent in the post-season. He and partner Jay Bouwmeester have been coach Craig Berube’s shutdown pairing throughout the post-season and they have answered the call, losing some battles but ultimately winning the war against the likes of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl and now keeping Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak relatively quiet in the final. Parayko is nothing more than a fringe candidate, however.
5. Jordan Binnington
Everyone loves an underdog story, and Binnington has penned one of the league’s best this season. From the depths of the depth chart to the No. 1 guy in the Blues’ crease in a matter of months, Binnington has backstopped St. Louis to within one win of the Stanley Cup. That said, while he has certainly stolen a game or two, Binnington’s overall play has been only OK in the playoffs. He’s sporting a .911 SP and 2.52 GAA with a minus-3.8 goals-saved above average at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick. If he wins the Conn Smythe, it’s because he turns aside more than 95 percent of the shots he faces in Game 7 and makes a couple ten-bell stops along the way.
4. Alex Pietrangelo
For as much as the Blues have leaned on Parayko, no defenseman has had to shoulder a greater load than Pietrangelo, who is averaging a team-high 25:45 per game and has been a force at both ends of the ice. Of Blues who have played in all 25 games this post-season, Pietrangelo ranks fourth in goals-for percentage (60.9) at five-a-side and he has contributed his share on the offensive side with two goals and 17 points, the latter good for third in team scoring. He’s helped St. Louis tilt the ice in their favor. If he does it once more, he could have a Conn Smythe to go along with the Stanley Cup.
3. Vladimir Tarasenko
Not to point out the obvious, but the Blues need offense if they’re going to win Game 7, and if anyone can take over a single game, it’s Tarasenko. The St. Louis sniper is one off the team lead with 11 goals in 25 games this post-season and fourth in team scoring with 16 points, and he’s been at his best over the past two rounds. He has six goals and 11 points over the past 12 games and his three goals in six games in the final ranks second for St. Louis. If the Blues earn a couple of power play opportunities in Game 7, Tarasenko might be able to breathe some life into a special teams unit that has been struggling. A couple goals in the series – and season – finale will go a long way in getting Tarasenko an additional piece of hardware for his mantle.
2. Tuukka Rask
Did you think it was going to be all Blues? You thought it was going to be all Blues. The thing about that is, win or lose, it’s impossible to erase Rask from this list and almost as difficult to keep him out of top spot. In fact, a better ranking for the Bruins netminder might be No. 1B instead of No. 2, because if Boston loses, those voting for the post-season MVP will have to seriously consider making Rask the winner anyway. If he does win as part of the losing team, he’d be the first player to win the Conn Smythe in a losing effort since Jean-Sebastian Giguere won the award in 2003 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Rask’s numbers are simply too impressive, his play simply too special, for him to be ignored as a top contender.
1. Ryan O’Reilly
But the reason Rask is No. 2 on this list is because if recent tradition holds and a player from the winning side is crowned the MVP, it has to be O’Reilly. He has made it clear that he is absolutely, unequivocally the do-everything – and do-everything-right – pivot that the Blues traded for last summer. O’Reilly has worked his tail off on the defensive side of the puck night in and night out in the playoffs, he has been the same responsible and disciplined center that he had proven to be throughout his career to this point and he’s logged serious minutes in every game of this final. Oh, and he also leads the Blues in scoring in the final with four goals and seven points and has a team-high 21 points in 25 games this post-season. If he is the difference-maker in Game 7, there’s no chance anyone else wins the award.
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