One of the reasons that it is fascinating to see a Stanley Cup Finals series go to game seven is because it raises the stakes at both the team and individual level.
Not only is the Stanley Cup decided by a winner-take-all game played by two teams with their backs to the wall, but the final battle in the less important individual war is being waged for the Conn Smythe trophy.
The finality of the game raises the intensity of each individual matchup that is playing out on the ice.
Hockey has two seasons. And the two most coveted individual trophies are the ones that go to the MVP of each of those seasons, the Hart Trophy for the regular season and the Conn Smythe trophy for the playoffs.
It is possible that a wild card could sneak in, but it would require a crazy set of circumstances to happen, like Ruslan Fedotenko scoring four goals in a 4-3 Penguins win while not being assisted by Evgeni Malkin. Sure, it's possible, but so is a monkey randomly typing out a Shakespeare play on a computer keyboard.
So, barring something insanely crazy happening, there are five likely candidates.
While the Conn Smythe recognizes the best player over the entirety of the playoffs, the final game will have a disproportionately high impact on who wins it.
That has almost always been the case.
Is Game seven any more important than the other six games? No...and yes. The goal is to be the first team to win four games and each game counts the same, as one win.
In that sense, the game has exactly the same overall impact as the previous six games.
But, the fact that Game sevens mean that both teams are playing with the same level of cornered-beast intensity does add a different element that is not present in the other six games.
In that sense, Game sevens are different than other games with emotions running wild in all of the players.
It is hard to predict how a team will perform in this type of pressure-packed environment knowing that the Cup is being polished up and all they need to do is just win to grab it.
So, it is only right that how a player performs in the biggest game of the year should have a higher impact on the Conn Smythe than how a player performed in Game Two of the second round.
The trophy rarely goes to a player on the losing team and it definitely won't this season.
There are years when a player's performance has been so spectacular and comparatively better than that of his teammates that he has already locked up the trophy before the final game is played with the only caveat being that his team needs to win.
This is not one of those years.
If the Red Wings win, the trophy will most likely go to:
Chris Osgood: Osgood is as close as there is this year to a sure thing if one team wins it. He has been sensational over all four series.
During that time, he has given up few soft goals, and has been nearly unbeatable in Detroit.
Far too often in the past, Osgood has been underrated and hasn’t seen much appreciation for his play.
But, he was able to really shine this year primarily because the Red Wings were not as dominant as they were on a couple of their previous runs when he all too often seemed like a spectator on an offensive and defensive juggernaut.
That has not been the case this year. Unless the Red Wings win a shootout in which Osgood gets beat early and often, he’ll win it.
Henrik Zetterberg: Zetterberg had the monumentally difficult task of neutralizing Sidney Crosby in the Finals. And, by and large, he did a superb job of it with plenty of help from his defensemen.
The problem for Zetterberg in terms of the Conn Smythe is that has come at a price. His offensive production is also down as he has been forced to focus more on his defensive game.
That doesn’t lessen what he has achieved. But, in the stats-driven world of sports, that achievement is less noticeable, if no less impressive.
The other thing Zetterberg has going against him is that he won the award last year. That also favors Osgood. But if a Red Wing not named Osgood is given the award, it will go to Zetterberg regardless of the offensive heroes of Game seven.
Pavel Datsyuk has missed too many key games to enter the pictures and Dan Cleary, the other dark horse, has not borne anywhere close to the burden of Hank.
If the Penguins win, things get a bit more interesting. Game seven will have a much bigger bearing on who gets the award for the Penguins since they have three legitimate contenders and two offensive stars who aren’t separated by much.
Evgeni Malkin: Malkin will be the first player to top all scorers in both the regular season and playoffs since some guy named Mario Lemieux pulled off the feat. That is no longer in doubt and is an amazing achievement.
He also stands a good chance to be the first player to ever do that while not collecting either MVP trophy. While I think the Hart Trophy should go to Malkin, it will probably go to Alex Ovechkin.
Malkin has been awesome at times throughout these playoffs, coming up huge against the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. When he has jumped over the boards, he has usually been the best guy on the ice.
He is considered the odds on favorite to win the award if the Penguins win it all but I’m not so sure. At the very least, I don't think he has wrapped up the award yet should the Penguins go on to win the Cup.
Sidney Crosby: Crosby has also been an offensive juggernaut throughout the playoffs and is only a few points behind Malkin.
When faced with the decision as to who to throw their best defensive players at to neutralize, the Red Wings chose Crosby over Malkin. That says a lot.
I think a solid argument could be made that Crosby is more deserving than Malkin of that trophy. He has won a ton of key face offs, been the on ice leader of the team, and effectively neutralized some of Detroit’s best players.
That sword cut both ways in this series with Zetterberg and Crosby largely cancelling each other out. He also played with more maturity than Malkin, who took a few costly and unnecessary penalties.
That isn't much of a knock on Malkin. He has been every bit the superstar that he was during the regular season.
I think whichever player has a bigger Game Seven is the leading candidate to win the Conn Smythe should the Penguins win. It may very well come down to which player has a bigger role in the decisive goal, especially if it is a one goal game.
One prediction I can make that I'm certain is right. If Crosby wins the honor, the Crosby haters will go nuts, claiming Malkin was robbed with a few off-handed references to diving and whining and plenty of charges of league bias.
Marc-Andre Fleury: Fleury is a definite long-shot. The Flower has made some spectacular saves, but he has also not been consistently sharp throughout these playoffs.
There is only one scenario that would likely result in him winning the award.
For Fleury to win, the Penguins would need to be noticeably outplayed and still win the game, preferably in a low scoring shutout. That is not out of the question since Fleury can put together awe inspiring games in which he simply lets nothing past him.
If the Penguins win 1-0 on a goal scored by Hal Gill after being outshot 38-18, Fleury wins the Conn Smythe. You can take that to the bank.
For that matter, if the Penguins win another game in which neither Malkin or Crosby break onto the score sheet, Fleury's odds go up.
If I was a betting man, here is how I see the percentages breaking down on each player’s chances of winning the award:
Osgood: 32 percent
Malkin: 23 percent
Crosby: 22 percent
Zetterberg: 18 percent
Fleury: 5 percent
Marian Hossa: 0 percent
So, how do I really see it ending?
I’m guessing that the Penguins nip the Red Wings 4-3 on a late goal by Bill Guerin on a key assist by Crosby. Crosby skates off with the Conn Smythe but doesn’t really seem to care. In the end, it’s all about the Cup.
He races to hand the Cup off to Evgeni Malkin, celebrating one of the best duos in the history of professional hockey.
By tomorrow this time, we’ll all know the real end of the story.