The Stanley Cup playoffs are only half over but that doesn't mean we can't look ahead to the final night of the season.
Before Gary Bettman hands the Cup to the captain of the winning team, he hands out the Conn Smythe Trophy to the playoff MVP.
As the conference finals begin, these are our favorites to win the Conn Smythe.
VICTOR HEDMAN, LIGHTNING
No one will take anything away from what the Lightning have accomplished thus far in the playoffs, but few truly expected Tampa Bay to be as dominant and as successful as they have been without the services of both Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. Luckily, the Lightning have another all-star rearguard in Victor Hedman, and he has stepped further into the spotlight this post-season as one of the league's best defenseman.
Hedman’s four goals and nine points in 10 games is impressive, but he’s also logging monster minutes for Tampa Bay. Through the first two rounds, Hedman is exceeding 27 minutes of ice time per outing and he has twice played more than 30 minutes. Say what you will for Jonathan Drouin’s ability to slide into the lineup and produce with Stamkos on the sidelines, but it has been Hedman’s ability to cover for the Lightning’s loss of Stralman that has helped Tampa Bay most.
Conn Smythe voting is usually skewed, fairly or not, by who steps up in the Stanley Cup final. But if the Lightning make it to the final for a second-consecutive season, let’s hope voters don’t forget about what Hedman has done through the first two rounds. Without him, a return to the final for Tampa Bay may not have even been possible. (Jared Clinton)
JOE PAVELSKI, SHARKS
It's tough not to give the running Conn Smythe nod to Logan Couture, seeing as he is leading the playoffs in scoring and all that, but I can't help but shake the importance Pavelski has had to the Sharks so far. Pavelski leads the NHL in goals and has taken more faceoffs than anyone else on San Jose. He's the captain of a team that has killed its post-season demons and if the Sharks go all the way, I suspect he will be rewarded doubly for that. (Ryan Kennedy)
NIKITA KUCHEROV, LIGHTNING
We've seen several standout performances out of Tampa Bay this post-season. Goalie Ben Bishop is as strong a Conn Smythe candidate as anyone. But, my goodness, has Nikita Kucherov ever been special. His overall stats might get overlooked simply because the Bolts won both their series in five games and have thus only played 10 games in the playoffs. But Kucherov has a whopping nine goals. He's scored a goal in seven of Tampa's 10 games. The NHL playoff record for goals is 19, shared by Reggie Leach and Jarri Kurri, and they did it in 19 and 18 games, respectively. If Tampa Bay goes on to win the Cup, it will do so playing a minimum of eight more games and a maximum of 14 more. If Kucherov maintains his 0.90 goals per game and wins the Cup, he'd finish with between 16 and 22 goals. Unlikely, of course, but it puts in perspective just how ridiculous Kucherov's run has been so far this spring. He's my Rounds 1-2 Conn Smythe winner. (Matt Larkin)
MATT MURRAY, PENGUINS
For this excerise we have to think ahead at least a little bit to who will continue to make a run, and likely, win the Cup. Right now the Penguins look like favorites, and they have Matt Murray, in large part, to thank for that. For all the star offensive power the Penguins have, it's Murray who has come almost out of nowhere to rescue them after veteran starter Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt.
Among goalies remaining in the playoffs, Murray is second in goals-against average and save percentage. He did it against formidable competition in the Rangers and Capitals, too. And yet, there's still the possibility of Fleury taking over if Murray falters. Here's betting he won't. (Ian Denomme)
BRENT BURNS, SHARKS
In the 98 playoff tournaments the NHL has held to contest the Stanley Cup, only seven times has a defenseman either won or shared the playoff scoring title. It hasn’t happened since 2002-03 when Scott Niedermayer and Jamie Langenbrunner each scored 18 points for the New Jersey Devils and no defenseman has won it outright since Brian Leetch in 1994. That list could very well have another name added to it by the end of the playoffs, and that name would be Brent Burns. Yes, we’re mesmerized by huge offensive numbers, which is why Erik Karlsson is going to win the Norris Trophy again this season and Burns is a finalist.
But the thing that makes Burns so valuable to the Sharks is there really is no way any team can draw up a game plan to stop him. After all, how do you deal with a 6-foot-5 freak of nature who can skate, pass and hit the net with pinpoint accuracy through a sea of bodies? It’s true that Burns is not required to do much of the defensive heavy lifting for the Sharks and his possession numbers aren’t spectacular, but is there a more dangerous offensive weapon on the Sharks right now? No. (Ken Campbell)