Phil Kessel and Matt Murray (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from capturing the Stanley Cup, which means Thursday night could see the presentation of the Conn Smythe Trophy. And in a series Pittsburgh has dominated, three Penguins look like the frontrunners for playoff MVP.
Nothing indicates the season is on the cusp of ending quite like seeing the Stanley Cup enter the building, and that will be exactly the case Thursday night at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins' convincing 3-1 victory over the Sharks Monday night gave Pittsburgh a 3-1 series lead, inching them ever closer to hoisting their second championship in eight season.
But the Stanley Cup won’t be the only piece of hardware in the building for Game 5. Before the Stanley Cup is presented — be it Thursday, Sunday or Wednesday — commissioner Gary Bettman will present the Conn Smythe trophy to the post-season MVP.
Heading into the final, there were a number of top candidates from both clubs, including the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Thornton. Given how the final has gone, though, it feels like an inevitability that the Conn Smythe will be heading Pittsburgh’s way. Barring the overtime game-winner by San Jose’s Joonas Donskoi, the Penguins have led for the entirety of the series and the Sharks’ biggest stars have been frustrated and largely held off the board with the aforementioned San Jose foursome combining for zero goals and six points.
As far as potential Conn Smythe winners go, though, there’s no clear-cut frontrunner. Last season, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith unanimously won the playoff MVP award and he was a no-brainer top choice. But this season’s winner could boil down to only a few top candidates, with the best bets being Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, winger Phil Kessel or rookie goaltender Matt Murray. But who's leading the race?
1. PHIL KESSEL
Who would have thought Kessel would have the potential to be feted as the playoff MVP shortly before hoisting the Stanley Cup less than one year after being cast off by the Toronto Maple Leafs? At this point, though, he’s realistically leading the charge for the Conn Smythe.
When making the case for Kessel, one has to consider that the Conn Smythe isn’t supposed to be about just how players play in the Stanley Cup final. The bulk of the post-season, opening faceoff to final whistle, should be considered. That’s why Kessel seems to be the best fit for the award. On a Penguins team that saw its two stars in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin go through dry spells, it has been Kessel who’s been the offensive catalyst. Through 22 games, he has 10 goals and 21 points and has posted 10 points on the power play
But even if the trophy’s description was ignored in favor of Stanley Cup final performance, it’s still easy to make the case for Kessel. He’s one of only five players with three points in the series, and while some believe Kessel can’t be leaned on as a go-to player, he is logging the second-highest ice time of any Penguins forward. Only Crosby has seen the ice more for Pittsburgh.
As bizarre as it may sound to some, this could have been seen coming. In Kessel’s previous playoff runs, he has been lights out. In 2007-08, while still a Boston Bruin, Kessel scored three goals and four points in four games. He followed that up the next season with six goals and 11 points in 11 games. And in the lone playoff series he saw as a Maple Leaf, Kessel scored four goals and six points in seven games.
Kessel has been a playoff performer for his entire NHL career, and the Conn Smythe could be headed his way to prove it.
2. SIDNEY CROSBY
Ignore Crosby’s eight-game goal drought for a second, because in 22 games, he still has 17 points and has been as dominant as we’ve ever seen. So while he may not be scoring as often as Kessel, one could argue Crosby has made an overall impact that outshines Kessel’s offensive contributions.
One of the keys to Pittsburgh’s success in the post-season has been their uncanny ability to control the flow of play. In the final alone, the Penguins have dominated possession at 5-on-5 to the tune of a 52.2 percent shot attempts for percentage, and that’s before adjusting for score effects that have surely impacted possession numbers given Pittsburgh’s propensity for leading early in games. Crosby has been a big part of the possession dominance for the Penguins, boasting a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 53.3 percent. He’s not playing easy minutes or light minutes, either. Crosby is facing top competition and still helping to control the play, and only Pavelski and Thornton have logged more 5-on-5 minutes in the entire post-season.
So even if Crosby has been goalless in eight games and five games for two separate stretches in this post-season, he’s still done all the things that have helped the Penguins take over games and he has done them while logging top minutes. It’s not as if the top scorer has to win the Conn Smythe, and four times post-lockout a skater other than the leading scorer has taken the hardware. Don’t be shocked if Crosby makes it five, especially if he has a big game to help win the series.
3. MATT MURRAY
The only rookie goaltenders to win the Conn Smythe are Carolina’s Cam Ward, Montreal’s Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden and Philadelphia’s Ron Hextall. Penguins netminder Matt Murray has a solid case to be the fifth goaltender on that list. However, the difficult part about Murray’s candidacy is that, in an almost Corey Crawford-esque way, the Penguins rookie might get overlooked because of the team he plays behind.
The Penguins have been arguably the best team in the league for the better part of six months at this point, and though Murray has been good when called upon, Pittsburgh's ability to control play has definitely helped. Through four games in the final, Murray has faced 98 shots to Martin Jones’ 133. And even though Murray has played nearly 100 minutes more than than St. Louis netminder Brian Elliott, whose Blues were eliminated in the Western Conference final, the Penguins rookie has still seen 11 fewer shots.
That said, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins make it this far with anyone but Murray. The freshman netminder has been so good that Marc-Andre Fleury, who was fantastic during the regular season, has been relegated to backup duty and was sat back down after losing his only start of the post-season. Murray’s .925 SP ranks third among goaltenders who have seen at least 10 games of action in the playoffs and his ability to bounce back from losses has been incredible. Not once in the entire post-season has Murray dropped consecutive games, and the worst performance he has had following a loss was a two-goal against, 19 saves-on-21 shots Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
If Murray is to capture the Conn Smythe like Ward, Roy, Dryden and Hextall before him, there’s going to have to be at least one more game-stealing performance, though. Regardless of whether he takes the playoff MVP, though, Penguins fans will remember the rookie’s magical run.