If you had asked me the night before the playoffs started who the early Conn Smythe trophy favorites would be up after the first round and a half the list would have included names like Alexander Ovechkin, Ryan Miller, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Henrik Sedin and Zach Parise. However, as history has shown us, the NHL playoffs are anything but predictable, and several superstars who could have contended as playoff MVP are already booking tee times on their favorite golf courses. Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals, Ryan Miller’s Buffalo Sabres, and Parise’s New Jersey Devils were all eliminated by supposedly inferior teams.
Another trend in NHL playoff hockey over the years is the emergence of unlikely heroes. Inevitably there will be one or more players from around the league that gets hot at exactly the right time and puts up numbers far exceed what we’ve come to expect out of them during the regular season. This year, there has certainly been more than one, and on many nights these unsung heroes have outshone the NHL’s biggest superstars. Yes, I know it is still early, but here are my picks for the top 10 Conn Smythe trophy favorites so far:
10 – Tuukka Rask
At the beginning of the season anyone who suggested that Tuukka Rask would be carrying the load for the Boston Bruins in their Stanley Cup drive would have been scoffed at. I mean, Tim Thomas was the defending Vezina trophy winner right? What a difference a single season can make. Thomas stumbled early in the season, and it became apparent the goal-challenged Bruins needed more consistency between the pipes if they were going to salvage their season. Coach Claude Julien was forced to turn to Tuukka Rask to try and find some consistency, and the rookie more than answered the bell, leading the league in both GAA and save percentage.
Though Rask’s numbers have been quite as sparkling in the playoffs, he has shown he has the intestinal fortitude to deal with the pressure of the playoffs, out-dueling Vezina trophy favorite Ryan Miller in the first round as the Bruins sent the Sabres packing, and outlasting Brian Boucher in game one of the Bruins’ second round match-up against the Philadelphia Flyers, making several clutch saves en route to a thrilling overtime victory.
Despite a new found scoring touch it is abundantly clear that the Bruins are only going to go as far in this year’s playoffs as Rask can take them. If they can battle their way to the finals Rask will certainly get plenty of votes as playoff MVP.
9 – Daniel Sedin
Though it was his brother Henrik Sedin who has been enjoying all the accolades this year – namely the Art Ross trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer, and a Hart trophy nomination as league MVP – had he been healthy for all 82 games this season it may very well have been Daniel Sedin enjoying the adulation of fans and the press. Daniel had almost an identical points-per-game average as brother Henrik, and has long been considered the (slighty) more talented of the twins.
In years past the knock against the Sedins has been that they are unable to maintain their consistent regular season point production come playoff time. It would seem that this year they are determined to shake that particular monkey off their backs. In 7 games thus far the twins have combined for 20 points. This time it is Daniel leading the way with 4 goals and 7 assists for 11 points in just 7 games. Daniel also set up brother Henrik for a clutch goal late in game 4 of their series against the Los Angeles Kings that was a pivotal turning point in the series.
8 – Pavel Datsyuk
Though he had an “off-season” by his usual exemplary standards, Datsyuk still remains one of the game’s very best two-way forwards. His 70 points put him in the top 30 in scoring, and he earned yet another Selke trophy nomination, an award he’s won each of the past two seasons.
However, as good as he is in the regular season, it is playoff time when Datsyuk really shines. The slick Russian forward has again been a force at both ends of the ice, quietly but consistently shutting down the opposing teams’ stars while racking up points of the offensive side of the ledger. So far Datsyuk has exceeded his regular season points-per-game pace, putting up 6 goals and 6 assists for 12 points in 9 games – good enough for 4th place in playoff scoring.
Though the Wings are in tough right now, sitting down 0-2 against the San Jose Sharks in their second round series look for Datsyuk to put the team on his back when they get back to the familiar confines of Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Don’t be surprised to see the series knotted up by the time they return to San Jose for game 5.
7 – Mike Richards
Is there anything this guy doesn’t do for the Philadelphia Flyers? Mike Richards is still relatively young at just 25 years of age, but there is nothing immature about his game. With a lethal combination of poise, intelligence, competitiveness and skill Richards is a coach’s dream. He always seems to make the right decision with the puck, whatever the situation – an invaluable ability come this crucial time of year.
So far the Flyers have gotten some surprising play from journeyman goaltender Brian Boucher, but make no mistake, the Flyers wouldn’t have made it to round two if not for their captain. Richards has been an absolute beast at both ends of the ice, hitting everything that moves, killing penalties, blocking shots, and winning key face-offs. However, it is his offensive production that is most impressive. Richards has 11 points in just 6 games so far, and his nearly 2 points-per-game average is nearly triple his regular season pace. Richards’ offensive numbers have been especially crucial as the Flyers are dealing with key injuries to high scoring forwards Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne. If he can keep up the pace Philly has a good shot at knocking off the Bruins and reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
6 – Henrik Zetterberg
As good as Pavel Datsyuk has been through Detroit’s first nine games, his teammate has been just a smidge better. Zetterberg has played like a man possessed, and seems to be bursting with an energy that was missing for much of the regular season, consistently rushing the puck, creating great chances for both himself and his teammates.
Again, like Datsyuk, Zetterberg is an excellent two way player, and coach Mike Babcock feels comfortable putting him out in any situation at any time of game. Late in the third period, regardless of whether Detroit is up by a goal or down by one you can be sure you’ll see #40 out on the ice.
Zetterberg’s 11 points tie him for 5th in league scoring, and his two game-winning goals in the first round are a huge reason why Detroit is still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.
5 – Mike Cammalleri
Granted, the Montreal Canadiens would have cleared out their lockers last week if not for the absolutely spectacular play of goaltender Jaroslav Halak. However, as good as Halak has been, he cannot win games all by himself. Someone has to step up and score some goals to give their Slovakian goaltending star a lead to protect. So far in this year’s playoffs that someone has been Mike Cammalleri.
Down the stretch of the regular season Cammalleri was mired in a horrendous slump. Coming off injury, he could not score a goal to save his life, unfamiliar ground for the deadly sniper. However, with his performance in the playoffs so far his regular season woes are long forgotten. Cammalleri has been the offensive engine for the Habs, potting 8 goals in 9 games, and adding 5 assists for good measure, good enough for 13 points and 3rd in the playoff scoring race.
Cammalleri has been particularly good in the first period, scoring early goals, helping the Habs build crucial leads they’ve been able to protect in the second and third. The lowest scoring team 5 on 5 in the regular season, the Habs have to hope Cammalleri will continue to hold a hot stick if they are to repeat their round one miracle upset.
4 – Mikael Samuelsson
Watching this guy play the way he did in round one against the Los Angeles Kings it seems inconceivable that Sweden’s Olympic committee could leave him off the roster of the team that failed so miserably in the 2010 Olympics. Samuelsson has been a scoring machine playing on a like with countrymen Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
After the first round Samuelsson led the playoffs in goal-scoring with 7. He has since been eclipsed by San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Montreal’s Mike Cammalleri, but the way he is playing those two will have to continue scoring at a prolific rate to avoid being overtaken.
Samuelsson is a proven winner from his time as a member of the Detroit Red Wings and knows how to elevate his game come playoff time. That poise and experience may just be the ingredient that pushes the Vancouver Canucks over the top and helps them win that elusive Stanley Cup their fans have been coveting for the past four decades.
3 – Sidney Crosby
Putting Sid at #3 on the list of the top 10 Conn Smythe contenders so far might raise some eyebrows. He is, after all, the playoffs leading scorer with 16 points, and was all but unstoppable in the Pens’ first round match-up against the Ottawa Senators. Pittsburgh’s young captain has earned all sorts of hardware in his relatively brief hockey career, and though he would never admit it, you know he wants to add a Conn Smythe trophy to his mantle.
At the end of round one, Crosby was the runaway winner, but he’s seen his stock slip a tiny bit so far in round two. He hasn’t been the same dynamic force against the Canadiens that he was against the Sens, and has even fallen into some bad habits, like taking exceptionally long shifts, something fellow superstar Alex Ovechkin is often criticized for.
Look for Crosby to really elevate his play in games 3 and 4 in Montreal. He grew up worshipping the Canadiens and always seems to play his best hockey in front of the Bell Centre crowd. If Crosby can lead his Pens to a second straight Stanley Cup then it is hard to imagine he won’t capture that piece of hardware currently missing from his trophy case.
2 – Jaroslav Halak
Yes, he’s had a couple of weak games during the post-season, getting pulled in a pair of games, and sitting out another in favor of Carey Price. Yet, despite some inconsistency, Halak is the reason the Habs are still competing in this year’s playoffs. The goaltending performance he put on in the final 3 games of the series against Washington earned him comparisons to such Montreal legends as Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and Steve Penny (okay, maybe not Penny). He stymied Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and the rest of the Capitals vaunted offense in helping the Canadiens make history. The brick wall Halak put up helped the Habs become the first #8 seed to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit against a #1 seed.
However, the incredible number of shots Halak faced in the tail end of the series took their toll, and in game one against the Penguins he wasn’t moving with his usual energy. He got torched for 5 goals and was pulled in favor of Carey Price.
There was some speculation that Price would actually get the start for game two, but head coach Jacques Martin would have been nuts to not give his team’s first round savior another chance. His loyalty was rewarded as Halak turned in another incredible performance, stopping 38 of 39 shots, helping the Habs to a 3-1 win, and more importantly squaring the series at 1-1 and scooping home ice advantage in the series.
1 – Joe Pavelski
Of all the incredible performances in the playoffs so far none is as unexpected as the phenomenal post-season Joe Pavelski has enjoyed so far. As is the case every playoff year, San Jose’s stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are under the microscope, and once again they’ve been eerily silent when their team needs them most.
No need to worry though Sharks fans, Little Joe has come to the rescue. Pavelski has been lights out so far, centering San Jose’s so-called second line. He has fired a league-leading 41 shots on goal so far, finding the net a playoff best 9 times. His 14 points put him in second place in NHL scoring, and his +7 rating and 55.2% face-off winning percentage puts him near the top in both of those statistical categories as well.
If Pavelski can continue to play anywhere close to his current level, and his superstar teammates Thornton, Marleau, and Dany Heatley can find their “A Game” then the Sharks have a legitimate shot at finally shaking the moniker of playoff underachievers. Should they eventually hoist the Stanley Cup it will very likely be Pavelski who walks away with the nod as playoff MVP.