2011 NHL Playoffs: Early Conn Smythe Front-Runners

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2011 NHL Playoffs: Early Conn Smythe Front-Runners
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Ryan Kesler has been the best playoff performer so far in 2011

After a big win over the Detroit Red Wings Thursday night, the San Jose Sharks became the last team to advance to the conference finals.

With only four teams still standing, the list of candidates for the Conn Smythe Award—given to the most outstanding player in the Stanley Cup playoffs—becomes more manageable.

Without stand-out players, teams find life in May very difficult, so already some have emerged as leaders on their teams.

Since the winner has always come from a team in the Finals, predicting them before this round is over would be premature, and a lot can change over the final two rounds.

However, here are the early favourites, challengers, and dark horses to be the playoff MVP's for their team:

 

San Jose Sharks

Ryane Clowe was the early favourite with four goals and three assists in the first round. He now has 13 points and a plus-six rating in 12 games, five of which have seen him register multiple points resulting in four Sharks wins.

But perhaps the biggest argument for him came in the game he did not play, when they looked flat in Game 6.

Antti Niemi was terrible in two games of the first round and pedestrian in two more. His numbers are not impressive: 3.01 GAA, .906 save percentage.

But he came up huge against one of the best scoring teams in recent playoff history, allowing just 17 goals on 246 shots (.931 save pct.) in more 432:26 in net (2.36 GAA).

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Statistically, Logan Couture is next in line, with six goals and six assists. But Joe Thornton has been the team's best player in three zones since early in the first round, winning key faceoffs and leading the team in assists (nine).

That will not be lost on those who vote for the Conn Smythe.

 

Vancouver Canucks 

Ryan Kesler is the obvious choice here, tied for the league lead in points despite facing great defences in each of the first two rounds.

As a favourite to win the Selke award as the league's best defensive forward, he has continued to excel (plus-six) without the puck while picking up the slack for the under-achieving Sedin twins.

Roberto Luongo may have been pulled from net in the first round, but he has responded, raising his post-season stats to a .917 save percentage and 2.25 GAA with a great second round.

No one has more shutouts than Bobby Lu, and while his second-round foe finished the regular season in the bottom-10 for scoring, they did finish the first round best in that category.

Kevin Bieksa has been the Canucks' best player on the blueline, partnering with Dan Hamhuis to lock down the back end while also putting up a goal and three assists.

 

Boston Bruins

There are no surprises here, with the B's best regular season players also leading them in the playoffs.

Tim Thomas was arguably the best player in the league this season, and is second in the playoffs in save percentage (.937) and goals against (2.03). While first-round opponent Montreal was not a prolific scoring team, second-round opponent Philadelphia was, against whom he was .953 and 1.65, respectively.

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Zdeno Chara was greatly missed in the one game he was out in the first round. He has two goals and two assists in the other 10 games and leads the league in plus/minus (plus-11) while gobbling up more ice time than anyone left (28:41).

Then again, Dennis Seidenberg is averaging just seven fewer seconds per game and is plus-eight, with a goal and five assists.

 

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa would be nowhere without the best goalie in this year's playoffs, Dwayne Roloson. He is tops in save percentage (.941) and goals against (2.01) despite playing two solid scoring teams.

That Martin St. Louis is the team's top scorer (six goals, seven assists in 11 games) is certainly no surprise.

Neither is his leadership, but the little wonder expended on that by showing toughness, returning twice to games after getting teeth knocked out.

By contrast, not many people would have predicted Sean Bergenheim to be on this list.

But unlike St. Louis (minus-four), Bergenheim is plus-eight and leads the league in post-season goals with seven among his eight points.

No one would argue he is as essential, but he is certainly in the running for the Conn Smythe.

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