We're still only midway through the opening round of the NHL playoffs, but some players are already stepping to the forefront as they lead their teams a little closer to hockey's ultimate prize.
The race for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP is underway and here is an early look at some of the candidates to win the award.
Obviously, this is a fluid situation. At this early juncture, one big game by a skater or one very poor performance by a goalie can change the equation in a hurry.
Since I've limited this list to 10, I tried to include players from teams that are likelier to advance to the deeper rounds.
Feel free to comment on any players you feel I may have missed and please state why you feel they belong on the list.
We might as well start with last year's winner, Jonathan Quick.
Sure, the Los Angeles Kings scored more consistently in the playoffs last year than they did during the regular season, but the fact is L.A. is a defense-first team that relies on its goaltender to win a lot of games by 2-1 or 1-0 scores.
With the Blues and Kings dead even at 2-2 and both teams having scored the same amount of goals, Quick narrowly edged out Brian Elliott for the last spot on this list because he has a slightly better save percentage.
The Blues and Kings are playing a physical, close, low-scoring series in which goaltending is paramount. Quick's impressive numbers so far amount to a 1.66 goals-against average and .941 save percentage.
If the Kings do oust the Blues and make another deep playoff run, Quick will be the key and one of the top candidates for playoff MVP.
I'm sure there will be plenty of groans when some readers see Sidney Crosby's name on this list, but before you start complaining, think about the following facts:
- Crosby has six points in three games for the Penguins so far in the playoffs.
- The media loves Crosby and lauds his every move.
- Sid will continue to get plenty of ice time. and as he gets back into game shape, the quality of his performance, his minutes and his point totals should only improve.
- While some say Crosby complains and flops and whines too much, he does draw calls that can sway the course of games in his team's favor.
The Penguins are involved in a tight series with the Islanders right now, but if Pittsburgh survives this tougher-than-expected test and goes on a long playoff run, there is little doubt Crosby will be front and center among MVP candidates.
The Washington Capitals have a 2-1 series lead over the New York Rangers so far in their opening-round playoff series and the biggest reason has been the play of goalie Braden Holtby.
The 23-year-old native of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan has done a great job of stopping the Rangers so far. He sports a 1.61 GAA and .964 save percentage through three games and has helped cover up some of his teammates' defensive mistakes at key times in the first three games of the series.
Few teams were as hot as the Caps in the second half of the season. If Washington is going to erase the memory of past playoff disappointments, Holtby will have to continue his outstanding play between the pipes.
The San Jose Sharks swept the Vancouver Canucks in their opening-round playoff series and Joe Pavelski was a big reason for his club's success.
Pavelski is tied for the lead league with eight points in four games.
Special teams are a big key to a team's success in the playoffs and "The Big Pavelski" has been a huge part of San Jose's power-play success. He already has three goals and five points while the Sharks have the man advantage during the playoffs.
The Sharks need offensive contributions from their second and third lines if they hope to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. Getting consistent production from Pavelski would go a long way toward fulfilling that goal.
The Chicago Blackhawks had the best record in hockey this season and one huge reason for it was the outstanding goaltending they got from the duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
Coach Joel Quenneville went with Crawford at the start of the playoffs and the results have been positive. Crawford has already won three games against the Minnesota Wild and one of them was a shutout.
His numbers have been outstanding: 1.39 GAA and .949 save percentage. He has been an important factor in the Blackhawks' 3-1 series lead over Minnesota.
Should Chicago make a run at its second Stanley Cup title since 2010, Crawford will be a solid contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
While other players have played a role in the Senators' surprising 3-1 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens, none has been as big of a factor as goalie Craig Anderson.
Anderson has a .945 save percentage and a GAA of 2.00.
The Senators have been outshot in three of the four games they've played against Montreal, but they won three of them in large part due to Anderson's fine play. In Game 1, he made 48 saves to set the tempo for the series.
While the Senators and Canadiens have played some fight-filled and emotional games, Anderson has kept his cool and given his team a big advantage in the series.
Should the Senators win their first Stanley Cup, there is little doubt Anderson would be among the top contenders for playoff MVP.
Patrick Sharp is tied for the league postseason lead with four goals in four games.
He has not only scored four goals in four games, but two of his tallies have been game-winners.
The native of Thunder Bay, Ontario has been dominant, taking 18 shots on goal in just four games including eight in the Game 2 at the United Center.
Sharp's play gives the Blackhawks the scoring depth they need to make a long playoff run.
If Chicago wins the Stanley Cup and Sharp continues at his currently torrid pace, he will be a strong contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Bruins are off to a strong start in their opening-round playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs and most of the offense has come from the line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic.
It's Krejci who is the early favorite among Bruins skaters in the MVP race. He has two goals and seven points in three games against the Leafs. The native of the Czech Republic has scored a goal and three points in each of his club's two wins so far in the series.
The line of Krejci, Horton and Lucic gives the Bruins both offensive potential and the ability to play a grinding, physical game. That is a very valuable commodity in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With eight points in four games, Evgeni Malkin is tied for the league lead in points thus far.
Half of Malkin's points have come on the power play, which is always an important factor in determining the winner of playoff games.
Malkin has used his size, speed and skill to produce points for the Penguins. He has even fought to give his team a boost, dropping the gloves with Travis Hamonic of the Islanders at the end of Game 4.
If the top-seeded Penguins survive their series with the Islanders and win their first Stanley Cup since 2009, Malkin stands a good chance of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The San Jose Sharks were the first team to win a playoff series this season and the play of Logan Couture was a big reason for their success.
Couture scored three goals and eight points in four games for San Jose, including the game-winning goal in Game 3.
In the fourth and final game of the series, the Guelph, Ontario native had a pair of assists. He notched a helper on the crucial game-tying goal that forced overtime.
All of Couture's goals and six of his eight points have come on the power play, which was the biggest difference between the two teams in this series.
If the Sharks win their first Stanley Cup, Couture is an early favorite for playoff MVP.