Will Sidney Crosby or David Krejci or someone else be this year's Stanley Cup playoffs MVP?
The top players in the Stanley Cup playoffs have all played different roles for their teams, from Boston's David Krejci leading the NHL in postseason scoring to Jonathan Quick carrying the Los Angeles Kings to a second straight conference finals appearance. Their performances have kept their teams alive as the Cup finals draw closer.
There are several other players who deserved consideration for this list, but their teams were eliminated in the second round.
And quite frankly, given the number of players who have been outstanding going all the way into the current third round, we had to have some type of demarcation line, and those whose teams didn't make the conference finals were unfortunately cut from the list.
Still, we would like to recognize several of those whose seasons ended sooner than they would have liked: Antti Niemi and Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings), Daniel Alfredsson and Kyle Turris (Ottawa Senators) and Derick Brassard (New York Rangers).
Now, let's look at the 12 players from whom this year's Stanley Cup MVP will likely come from.
When Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in the Penguins' opening-round series against the New York Islanders, head coach Dan Bylsma made a surprising move by replacing Fleury with backup Tomas Vokoun.
To his credit, and prior to Monday night's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bruins, Vokoun had risen to the occasion, with a 1.98 GAA and a .937 save percentage en route to a 6-2 record thus far.
But then came Monday's game, when Vokoun was bombed in a 6-1 loss and saw his GAA soar to 2.26, his overall record dropped to 6-3 and his saves percentage also dove to .929. To add insult to injury, he was replaced by the same man he replaced earlier in the playoffs, Fleury.
Whether Vokoun or Fleury starts in Game 3 remains to be seen, but given how much good Vokoun did prior to Monday's debacle, he still belongs in the starting lineup in Wednesday's contest.
If the Penguins can get things back on track, there's an outside shot that Vokoun could ultimately be named the MVP in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but two things have to happen first.
One, the Penguins have to beat the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final. So far, though, they are down 0-2 to Boston, certainly not a good sign.
Two, he would have to totally outshine the team's stars thus far in the playoffs, which doesn't seem likely unless guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jarome Iginla and Pascal Dupuis suddenly fall apart and stop scoring.
Oh wait, they HAVE stopped scoring in this series. Pittsburgh has been outscored 9-1 in the first two games.
Still, the Penguins likely wouldn't be where they are now without Vokoun.
While guys like Jeff Carter and Justin Williams have done much of the Kings' scoring during the playoffs (Williams has five goals and Carter has added six), center Mike Richards has become the team's key setup man.
With eight assists and two goals, Richards has sacrificed his own goal scoring (only 22 shots thus far) to become the quintessential team player, finding teammates to put the biscuit into the net.
But that also shows why helpers are so important. And that's why it's not surprising that even with minimal goal scoring, Richards is still leading the Kings with 10 points.
Unfortunately, he was injured at the end of Game 1 Saturday vs. the Blackhawks and missed Game 2, one of the main factors why Chicago had its way so easily in that game.
If the Kings are to come back from the 0-2 series deficit, they're going to have to have Richards back in the lineup. Otherwise, we could be talking a Chicago sweep in less than five days.
Defenseman Kris Letang has had an exceptional series for the Penguins with three goals and, more importantly, 13 assists thus far in the playoffs.
His playmaking proficiency has been uncanny, and Pittsburgh would not be where it was without him. At the same time, you can't blame Letang for the Penguins' scoring collapse in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals.
That's why, just like pretty much every one of his teammates, it's not surprising that Letang was held off the score sheet in the 3-0 Game 1 shutout and the 6-1 throttling in Game 2 on Monday night.
Letang has done what he can in the first two games, but Boston's defense has been outstanding, particularly goalie Tuukka Rask. You have to give credit to the Bruins.
Some fans think the most valuable players are the ones who score the most goals, but those prolific goal scorers typically are only as good as their setup guy. The Penguins have one of the best in Letang.
One of the most veteran players in the playoffs, 34-year-old Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has been playing with the enthusiasm of a youngster.
When he's on the ice, he seemingly is everywhere. Not only is he scoring (six goals) and setting up plays (seven assists), he has been an effective defensive force for the Blackhawks as well.
Hossa is having his best playoff campaign since 2009, when he had six goals and nine assists during his one-year stint with the Red Wings before joining the Blackhawks the following season.
While players his age start thinking about retirement, Hossa appears as if he could play another 10 seasons or more based upon his play thus far in this year's playoffs. He keeps himself healthy, is a great motivational force within the team (particularly for the younger players), and always seems to be Johnny on the spot when a puck is loose and needs to be punched into the net or passed to a teammate with a better angle.
If Chicago reaches and wins the Stanley Cup Final, Hossa stands a good chance of being among those considered for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Picking up Hossa has been one of the smartest moves the Blackhawks have made in several years.
Right wing Pascal Dupuis has been one of the biggest keys to the Penguins' play in the playoffs. While he's only scored 10 points, consider that he's scored a goal nearly every fourth time he takes a shot (33 shots, 21.2 scoring percentage).
Dupuis has helped take off much of the load for teammates Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla.
But given the way the Penguins have had a nightmarish production of just one goal in the first two games against the Bruins in the conference finals, someone has to break out and get them back on track.
Say what you want about Crosby, Malkin and Iginla, but when the chips are as down as they are currently for the Penguins, Dupuis could be the right guy at the right time to get his team back on track in Games 3 and 4.
If not, there may not be a Game 5 at the rate the Penguins are going.
Given what Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask has done to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, there's no question he belongs in the playoffs MVP conversation. He has surrendered just one goal in two games.
In 14 games thus far in the postseason, Rask is 10-4 with a .935 save percentage and a 1.99 GAA. He's given up 29 goals while making 418 saves.
While there's a lot more hockey still to be played, and you can't discount the Penguins even if they are 0-2 right now in the series, Rask could soon give teammate David Krejci a run for his money as overall playoff MVP.
When Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews went through the entire first-round series vs. Minnesota without any goals, Patrick Sharp stepped up to pick up the slack. He has continued to help out on offense, leading the Blackhawks with a team-high 14 points (eight goals and six assists).
Sharp has played very smart hockey during the first three rounds. He's picked his spots and cashed in at the most opportune and important times for the Blackhawks.
Sure, he's taken 51 shots on goal, but you can bet that when there's a goal that needs to be scored, Sharp is going to be nearby, ready to strike.
If the Blackhawks reach the Stanley Cup Final and win their second championship in four seasons, Sharp has the potential to be the overall playoff MVP.
Without question, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has been the best netminder in the playoffs to date—well, at least until he was shellacked with four goals in Sunday's 4-2 loss at Chicago.
Still, even with his bad game and seeing his GAA drop from a league-leading 1.54 to second-best 1.76, a .940 save percentage and an 8-7 record in net, the Kings would not be where they're at now if it wasn't for Quick.
But there is a concern that rests heavy on the Kings' minds: Even though they beat the Sharks to advance to the conference finals, the fact remains that they have lost five of their last seven games, including the first two of the Western Conference final in Chicago.
Quick needs help, and lots of it, particularly scoring from his teammates. He could be absolutely spectacular in goal the rest of the way, but if his teammates don't start finding the opponent's net pretty fast (like being outshot 17-2 in the first period of Saturday's series opener), the Kings may fall short of having a chance to defend last year's Cup championship.
Corey Crawford has been playing the best hockey of his life during the playoffs.
While some might say Ray Emery is the better goalie on the team, a late injury during the regular season sidelined him for nearly two weeks. Crawford picked up the baton and has not yielded since then.
Even when the 'Hawks went down 3-1 to the Detroit Red Wings in Round 2, coach Joel Quenneville didn't give up or stop believing in Crawford. The 28-year-old has now won five in a row, the last three against the Red Wings and the first two games of the conference finals against the Los Angeles Kings.
What's more, he now has the best GAA of all goalies in the playoffs at 1.67, overtaking the Kings' Jonathan Quick, who dropped to 1.76 after Sunday's 4-2 shellacking.
While so much attention is paid to guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, Crawford is just as valuable to the 'Hawks.
Center Evgeni Malkin has been Mr. Versatility for the Penguins during the playoffs.
Well, at least up until the current Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins, who have stopped Malkin and his teammates cold.
Even though he and the Penguins have struggled to open the series, Malkin has done his typical scoring (four goals), but has been nothing short of phenomenal as the Pens' setup man. He has 12 assists thus far to share the overall scoring lead for Pittsburgh with teammate Kris Letang, both with 16 points each, one point more than teammate Sidney Crosby.
If things continue going forward for the Penguins and they wind up winning the Stanley Cup, it could be a toss-up for who wins the playoff MVP, Malkin, Letang or Crosby.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has looked like his old self during this year's playoffs. He's completely healthy from past concussion issues and has been both a team goal-scoring leader and a setup man for goals by other teammates.
Crosby and his team looked exceptional in the first two rounds of the playoffs—that is, before they met the Boston buzzsaw in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bruins have dominated the Penguins and put them in a 2-0 hole.
That's somewhat sad, as Crosby has been nothing short of outstanding in this year's playoffs, perhaps better than some might have expected from him.
Of course, for him to ultimately cap all the adversity he's faced the last few years and be the league's best of the best this postseason, he and his Penguins have to rally back in a big way in Game 3 on Wednesday and then go on to win the Stanley Cup Final.
And no matter how good Crosby is, getting past the Bruins will be no easy task.
Some might be surprised at our choice of David Krejci at No. 1, but he's had a spectacular playoff run to date.
And if the Bruins can continue doing what they've done in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final, Krejci could sweep to the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP.
Interestingly, he has taken among the fewest number of shots out of the top MVP candidates (36), but he's scored eight goals for a 22.2 scoring percentage.
In addition, he has helped set up his teammates for additional goals with 12 assists, giving him 20 points. That's tops among all players still remaining in the playoffs.
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