By Nick Craddock
The 2012 NHL playoffs are coming to a crescendo. Between a closely contested Eastern Conference Finals featuring the rival New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils and what has turned into a one-sided Western Conference Finals featuring the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes, the muddled playoff picture which began with 16 teams vying for Lord Stanley’s Cup is coming into focus.
Of all the players who have made their mark this postseason in helping their teams to this stage, these five look poised to have the best shot at capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the NHL playoffs’ Most Valuable Player.
1. Dustin Brown, right wing, Kings: Brown is proving why he wears the “C” on his jersey this spring. He leads his team in scoring with seven goals and eight assists, including three game-winning goals. He’s tied with teammate Anze Kopitar for the best plus/minus rating of any player in the playoffs. He delivers crushing hits. And even when he’s not making an incredible play, he influences the game to such a degree that it affects his opponent’s psyche (i.e.Phoenix’s Martin Hanzal cross-checking Brown from behind into the boards during Game 2, resulting in a one-game suspension). All in all, Brown’s outstanding play makes it unfathomable to think the Kings contemplated trading Brown at the trading deadline. Simply put, the Kings’ stellar play through these playoffs thus far would not be possible without Brown. That description sounds like the embodiment of a Conn Smythe winner.
2. Mike Smith, goalie, Coyotes: Although not a position player, Smith’s contributions to his team are similar to Brown’s, given that the Coyotes would not have advanced this far without their backstop. After this hulking goalie was nearly impenetrable in the first two rounds, yielding only three goals in the final three games in the last series versus Nashville, he has cracked a bit against the Kings’ unrelenting offensive attack. To be fair, he has seen more rubber than the Michelin Man in the conference finals as his team has been outshot 116-70 in the first three games and the Coyotes could be in even worse shape than their current 0-3 series deficit if it weren’t for Smith.
3. Jonathan Quick, goalie, Kings: Aside from a couple of soft goals, including one mid-ice slapshot, there haven’t been too many blips on the Connecticut native’s postseason performance to date. Like his teammate Brown, there was talk last year that Quick’s days in Los Angeles could’ve been numbered with the younger Jonathan Bernier (a former first-round pick) warming the bench. Quick quieted naysayers with a Vezina-worthy regular season and, in fact, Quick’s playoff performance may be somewhat overshadowed by the amazing prowess the rest of his team has shown this postseason. Make no mistake, Quick’s sub-2.00 goals against average and .950 save percentage this postseason is a big part of his team’s success.
4. Brad Richards, center, Rangers: The $60-million man has been worth every penny the Rangers spent in acquiring the pride of Prince Edward Island during free agency. Richards leads the Rangers in scoring this postseason with 12 points and is always on the ice during the clutch moments of games. One might argue that Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is actually the team’s MVP, but Lundqvist, while one of the NHL’s best goaltenders and a perennial Vezina candidate, has not necessarily elevated his play to an exceptional level, but rather given the consistent effort expected of him. Moreover, Lundqvist gets a lot of help from the defense-first system Rangers head coach John Tortorella demands from his player, so a lot of shots don’t even reach Lundqvist in his net. Perhaps more telling is that the Rangers haven’t been this deep in the playoffs since 1997. Lundqvist has been the netminder in New York for some time, but the addition of Richards seems to have the pushed the team to the next level in these playoffs.
5. Martin Brodeur, goalie, Devils: At the tender age of 40, Brodeur continues to show that, when necessary, he can still deliver when it matters most. Brodeur was an instrumental part of the Devils’ championship-winning teams in 1995, 2000 and 2003 and the current edition of the Devils will need Brodeur to enjoy his youthful renaissance for just a few more weeks. A Conn Smythe trophy would be a nice bookend on the trophy shelf of the greatest goalie to have played the game.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.