The first round of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs has yet to come to an end, but several players have risen above all others and helped elevate their respective teams. The Conn Smythe Trophy will be awarded to the player who was most valuable to his team during the playoffs, and there are three players in particular who are early contenders.
As is often the case, goaltending has been the name of the game thus far. Playoff hockey is usually physical and tight-checking, so it is incredibly important for goalies to step up and play solid hockey. At the same time, scoring is essential, so forwards and defensemen shouldn't be overlooked.
Corey Crawford, G, Chicago Blackhawks
Entering the 2012-13 season, goaltending was considered to be the Chicago Blackhawks' weak link. However, the tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery allowed the fewest goals in the league and led Chicago to the best record in the NHL during the regular season. With Emery ailing, the starting job was given to Crawford heading into the playoffs, and he certainly hasn't disappointed.
Crawford went 4-1 for the Hawks against the Minnesota Wild and finished the round with a minuscule 1.32 goals against-average and .950 save percentage along with a shutout. While Chicago's stout defense—consisting of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and others—has obviously had a lot to do with Crawford's success, he is the last line of defense and hasn't let his teammates down thus far.
Crawford couldn't come up with big saves during last year's first-round series against the Phoenix Coyotes, so fans turned on him to some degree. The fans' feelings regarding Crawford were summed up quite nicely by the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times prior to the playoffs, according to Mark Lazerus of the Sun-Times.
There is no question that Crawford has saved face and is likely the front-runner for the Conn Smythe. The Blackhawks are heavily favored to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, and Crawford will be a huge part of that.
David Krejci, C, Boston Bruins
A big reason for the Boston Bruins' success over the past several years has been their deep crop of forwards. Anyone can come up big on any given night, but center David Krejci has put the team on his back through its first five playoff games. The Bruins currently lead the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in their first-round series, but if not for Krejci's clutch play, Boston could easily find itself on the brink of elimination.
Krejci had a solid regular season with 33 points in 47 games, but he has been a different player as of late. With 11 points, Krejci leads all scorers and is averaging more than two points per game. He is also the leading goal scorer in these playoffs with five, including an overtime winner in Game 4. The Czech star has always been a very modest player, and that continues to be the case despite his fine play, according to the Bruins' official Twitter feed.
The Bruins aren't out of the woods yet, as the Leafs will have an opportunity to take this series the distance, but beating the Bruins three games in a row will be incredibly difficult based on how well Krejci has been playing. Some of his highly touted teammates haven't performed to the level that Bruins fans have come to expect, but Boston is still thriving thanks to Krejci's hot streak.
Aside from the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Bruins are probably the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. If they manage to reach the Stanley Cup Final, Krejci will undoubtedly be in the running for the Conn Smythe.
Jonathan Quick, G, L.A. Kings
When the Los Angeles Kings went on their miracle run to a Stanley Cup triumph last year as a No. 8 seed, most of the credit went to goaltender Jonathan Quick. It was for good reason, as the American netminder posted an incredible 1.41 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage and went 16-4 over the course of the postseason. He was honored with the Conn Smythe Trophy at the conclusion of the playoffs, and it is entirely possible that Quick will win the award for a second consecutive year.
The Kings were able to knock off a tough St. Louis Blues squad in six games in the first round thanks to Quick's play. He is second to Crawford in goals against at 1.58 per game as well as save percentage at .944. It can be argued that Quick is more important to the Kings than Crawford is to the Blackhawks, though, since Chicago has a better overall supporting cast.
Whatever the case, Quick seems poised to lead the Kings to greatness once again. Quick actually struggled at times during the regular season with a 2.45 goals-against average, a pedestrian .902 save percentage and just one shutout, but he seems to know how to turn it on come playoff time. Kings forward Dustin Penner fully realizes that Quick is key to the Kings' success, as does pretty much anyone who has watched this team play.
Quick's Conn Smythe candidacy hinges on the Kings' ability to get to the Stanley Cup Final. L.A. won't have to face the Blackhawks until the Western Conference Final—provided both teams make it that far—so a Crawford vs. Quick showdown could very well determine the MVP of this year's postseason. No player has won consecutive Conn Smythes since Mario Lemieux in 1991 and 1992, but Quick could potentially break that streak this year.
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