The Conn Smythe Trophy field gets smaller with each day.
Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was a leading candidate until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, when he allowed four goals in a little more than 12 minutes. He hasn’t played since.
Ottawa defenceman Erik Karlsson, reportedly playing with a pair of hairline fractures in his left heel, might have been the favourite had the Senators defeated Pittsburgh in Game 7. The Senators lost in double overtime, despite a pair of assists from their captain.
Senators goalie Craig Anderson was in the mix after getting the Senators to a Game 7. Aneheim centre Ryan Getzlaf had 15 points in his first nine playoff games. But, like Karlsson, their seasons are done. You have to make the final to have a chance at the playoff MVP award.
So who are the favourites as Pittsburgh and Nashville prepare for Game 1 of the Cup final Monday night? Here are our top five:
Pekka Rinne, Predators
Nashville probably wouldn’t be in its first final if not for Rinne, who leads all goalies in every major statistic this post-season. He was spectacular the first round against Chicago, posting a .976 save percentage, and still has a .941 mark after three rounds, .952 during five-on-five play. Anaheim outshot Nashville 41-18 in Game 6 of the West final, including 30 shots from quality scoring areas, but the Predators advanced, thanks largely to Rinne. Goalies have won the Conn Smythe 16 times, more than any other position. Rinne might be the 17th, regardless of who wins the Cup.
Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
Malkin, now 30, continues to prove why he’s one of the most deadly playoff scorers of his generation. He leads all players this post-season with 24 points — four more than teammate Sidney Crosby — in 19 games, and has been difficult to handle with the man advantage, with a league-leading 10 power-play assists. Malkin has already won the Conn Smythe once, in 2009, when he notched 14 goals and 22 assists in 24 games. Only five players have won the award at least twice: Patrick Roy (three), Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Bernie Parent.
P.K. Subban, Predators
Subban has been something of a quiet contender in the Conn Smythe race, assigned to cover the top opposition forwards. That’s meant a steady diet of Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, St. Louis’s Vladimir Tarasenko, and Anaheim’s Getzlaf. The results? Three goals combined in 16 games for those forwards. Subban and defensive partner Mattias Ekholm have been on the ice for just six goals against in 5-on-5 situations. Subban has reportedly been playing with a herniated disc in his back — and some observers have noted a slight drop in his puck-moving, skating, and normally terrific slap shot — but he is still tied for third among defencemen in playoff scoring with 10 points.
Phil Kessel, Penguins
It’s only natural to look at Kessel’s run in Pittsburgh — he won a Cup last year and is a Smythe contender for a second straight spring — and contrast it to his mercurial time with the Leafs. Kessel is currently fourth in playoff scoring with seven goals and 12 assists. He is second with 56 shots, and has five goals and 11 points on the power play. There’s no arguing he’s a tough competitor: his open tirade in the Ottawa series, and his subsequent game-winning goal, underlined how badly he wants to succeed.
Sidney Crosby, Penguins
There wasn’t a lot of Conn Smythe talk about the game’s best player during the first two rounds. But Crosby’s star has risen dramatically after a stellar performance in the conference final against Ottawa. He’s now second in playoff scoring, behind Malkin. Crosby is looking to become the first player to captain consecutive Cup winners since Detroit’s Steve Yzerman and Pittsburgh’s Lemieux did it in the 1990s. He’s also hoping to be join Lemieux and Parent as the only back-to-back playoff MVPs.