Conn Smythe Trophy Top 8: Who's Leading the Race for Playoff MVP?

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2021

Conn Smythe Trophy Top 8: Who's Leading the Race for Playoff MVP?

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    Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

    The Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded annually to the most valuable player to his team in the NHL playoffs as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. It is presented following the final game of the Stanley Cup Final.

    Past winners of this award include Hall of Famers such as Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy and Nicklas Lidstrom. Recent winners include Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (pictured above) took home the award last season.

    With the second round of the 2021 NHL Playoffs underway, we're still weeks away from finding out this year's winner. Based on the first-round performances among players on teams that advanced to the second round, here's a look at the top-eight players in the race for 2021 postseason MVP honors.

8. Ilya Sorokin, New York Islanders

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Ilya Sorokin enjoyed a fine rookie regular season with the New York Islanders. However, he drew the start in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins because veteran starter Semyon Varlamov was hampered by a lower-body injury. The 25-year-old goaltender made an impressive playoff debut, kicking out 42 shots in a 4-3 overtime victory.

    Sorokin took a seat for the next two games as Varlamov returned to the crease. A shaky performance by the veteran in a 5-4 loss in Game 3 prompted Islanders coach Barry Trotz to give the younger netminder another start.

    Trotz was rewarded for his faith in Sorokin. The 25-year-old backstopped the Islanders to three straight wins as they eliminated the Penguins in six games. His best performance was in Game 5 as he made 50 saves in their double-overtime win.

    Sorokin and his teammates got a rude welcome to the second round as the Boston Bruins took Game 1 by a scored of 5-2. Without his efforts against the Penguins, however, the Islanders might not have gotten this far. He's sixth among playoff goaltenders in save percentage (.934) while his 2.32 goals-against average ranks eighth.

7. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Carolina Hurricanes finished atop the Central Division but needed six hard-fought games to eliminate the plucky Nashville Predators from the opening round. Leading the way was center Sebastian Aho with five goals and seven points.

    Aho's been the linchpin of the Hurricanes' offense since his sophomore season in 2017-18. As well as being their regular-season scoring leader over the last four seasons, he's also their top postseason scorer

    The Predators managed to hold Aho scoreless in three of the six games in their series. However, the 23-year-old center had two two-goal games and a three-point effort in Game 4. He also tallied the series-clinching goal in overtime during Game 6.

    Facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, the Hurricanes will need their top players to be at their best. Another strong performance by Aho will be critical to their championship hopes.

6. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price has a well-earned reputation for elevating his game in postseason competition. He provided another example during his club's first-round upset of the heavily-favored Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.

    Price made 35 saves, carrying his club to a 2-1 series-opening win. The Leafs dominated the Canadiens over the next three games, but the 33-year-old Habs netminder gave his overwhelmed teammates a chance to win in each of those contests.

    Inspired by Price's unflappable demeanor and stellar goaltending, the Canadiens found their scoring touch and clawed their way back into the series. He limited Leafs superstar Auston Matthews to one goal and kept Mitch Marner scoreless. Price was outstanding in Game 6, turning aside 41 shots before Jesperi Kotkaniemi tallied the game-winner in overtime. Two nights later, he made 30 saves in a 3-1 victory in Game 7.

    Price was the Canadiens' undisputed MVP against the Leafs. With their long-time starter still at the top of his game, the underdog Habs could be a handful for the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.

5. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Marc-Andre Fleury appeared headed into the twilight of his career in 2019-20. His struggles during the regular season prompted the Vegas Golden Knights to acquire Robin Lehner at the trade deadline. He appeared in just four playoff games during the Golden Knights' run to the Western Conference Final, sparking speculation he could be traded in the offseason.

    What a difference a year makes. The Golden Knights opted to stick with the 36-year-old Fleury. He rewarded them with the best regular-season numbers of his career, posting a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and six shutouts. He followed that up by backstopping his club to the second round following a tough seven-game opening-round series with the Minnesota Wild.

    Fleury lost a goaltending duel with Wild goalie Cam Talbot with a 1-0 overtime defeat in Game 1 but responded with a solid effort in a 3-1 victory in Game 2. He kicked out 35 shots in a 4-0 shutout in Game 4 as the Golden Knights took a 3-1 series lead. He stumbled a bit over the next two games as the Wild tied the series but bounced back with a 20-save effort in a 6-2 victory in the seventh game.

    It was Fleury's goaltending that carried the Golden Knights on an amazing run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Three years later, he's regained that stellar form. As of May 31, he sat third among playoff goalies with a 1.71 goals-against average and eighth with a .931 save percentage. 

4. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Part of the Boston Bruins “Perfection Line” alongside center Patrice Bergeron and left wing Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak established himself in recent years among the NHL's top scorers. But as the junior member of that line, the 25-year-old right winger is still sometimes overshadowed by his older linemates.

    Pastrnak, however, has stood out from Bergeron and Marchand thus far in this year's NHL playoffs. With five goals and nine points in six playoff games, he's the Bruins' leading scorer and among the postseason leaders.

    The skillful winger made his presence felt with a hat trick in Game 1 of the Bruins' second-round series against the New York Islanders. He was just as dominating in their five-game elimination of the Washington Capitals in the first round, finishing with two goals and six points, including the winning goal in Game 4.

    The defensive-minded Islanders will put more focus on shutting down the Bruins' top line as their series goes on. If Pastrnak continues to avoid that smothering checking blanket as he did in Game 1, the Bruins could advance to the semifinals.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

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    Peter Power/Associated Press

    The Winnipeg Jets entered their first-round series against the Edmonton Oilers as the underdogs. Having stumbled into the postseason with just three wins in their final dozen regular-season contests, the Jets were considered easy pickings for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and their Oilers teammates.

    Somebody forgot to tell that to Connor Hellebuyck, who reminded everyone why he won the Vezina Trophy last year. Thanks to his superb performance, the Jets surprised the hockey world by sweeping the heavily-favored Oilers. He leads all playoff goalies with a .950 save percentage while his 1.60 goals-against average is tied for the lead with the Colorado Avalanche's Philipp Grubauer.

    Hellebuyck allowed just one goal on 33 shots as the Jets shocked the Oilers 4-1 in the opening game. He followed up with a 38-save shutout in a 1-0 win two nights later. The Oilers managed to put four goals past Hellebuyck on 48 shots in Game 3, but it was the Jets who emerged with a 5-4 overtime victory. Two nights later, he made 37 saves in a 4-3 triple-overtime series clincher.

    Other members of the Jets core had terrific performances in this series. The top line of Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor led the way offensively, while winger Nikolaj Ehlers made his presence felt returning from injury for the final two games. Without Hellebuyck's goaltending, however, this series might have had a different outcome.

2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Colorado Avalanche made short work of the St. Louis Blues in their first-round series, sweeping the 2019 Stanley Cup champions. Nathan MacKinnon led the way with six goals and nine points in four games.

    MacKinnon, 25, was a force to be reckoned with during the 2020 playoffs, finishing fourth in scoring with 25 points despite his club being eliminated from the second round. Following a 65-point performance this season, he's serving notice that he's picking up from where he left off last year.

    An elite offensive star, MacKinnon mauled the Blues in the first two games. He tallied two goals and an assist in 4-1 victory in Game 1 followed by a hat trick and an assist in a 6-2 win in Game 2. Held scoreless in Game 3, MacKinnon had a goal and an assist in the series finale.

    MacKinnon enjoyed a two-goal, three-point performance in Game 1 of the Avs second-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights. With 12 points, he's now tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov for first place among the playoffs' leading scorers.

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are loaded with stars worthy of early MVP recognition. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, team captain Steven Stamkos, forwards Alex Killorn and Brayden Point, and 2020 Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman have enjoyed fine postseason performances thus far.

    Nikita Kucherov, however, has stood out from the pack. Despite missing the entire regular season recovering from hip surgery on Dec. 29, the 27-year-old right winger wasted little time getting back into top playoff form. His 12 points tie him with Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon for the lead among postseason scorers.

    Kucherov made his presence felt during the Lightning's opening-round series with the Florida Panthers. He collected points in five of the six games, including multi-point efforts in three of them.

    The argument can be made that Kucherov has an advantage over his opponents because he didn't go through the wear and tear of a compressed 56-game schedule. However, it's not easy to recover from surgery while attempting to return to game shape in time for the physical grind of the playoffs. His play during the first round makes him the early leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy.


    Stats (as of May 31, 2021) via