It’s hard to believe, but the 2021 playoffs are already halfway over. At most, 21 games remain in what’s been a tumultuous season.
The Presidents’ Trophy winners are gone. As are the regular-season champions of the North Division. In fact, not a single division champion remains on the quest for Lord Stanley’s grail.
The sample sizes are starting to get more representative, and the playoff heroes are becoming more apparent. There’s still time for players to step up and earn themselves consideration for Conn Smythe honors as playoff MVP, but those who’ve already done some heavy lifting are in the best positions.
So, here’s a look at the top Conn Smythe candidate from each of the semi-finalist teams.
Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price
The easiest selection by far. Now, that doesn’t mean you should go bet on Carey Price. That’d be… inadvisable. It’s not even to say Price has been the best player in these playoffs. He’s up there, but probably hasn’t been. What it does say is this: if Montreal wins the Cup, Price will be the playoff MVP. Guaranteed. With the other semi-finalist teams, the picture simply isn’t as straightforward. They each have their current favorites, sure, but each also has multiple viable candidates. And each team could see their current MVP’s performance wane in the coming weeks and still conceivably hoist the Cup. Montreal can’t.
That Montreal is still alive – that they even made it through the first round – is down to Price’s primo playoff performance. His peculiar primo playoff performance.
Price has a 1.97 goals-against average and an NHL-best .935 save percentage through 11 playoff games. That’s in character for ‘playoff Price.’ In his past three post-seasons (including this one), Price has a 1.88 GAA and an identical .935 SP in 27 games. In that timeframe, both figures rank second among goalies with at least seven games played. So why peculiar? Price’s regular-season numbers over the same period, 2016-17 to 2020-21, are average – and trending downward. Across 260 games in that time, Price posted a .912 SP and a 2.62 GAA. This season, he had the second-worst SP (.901) of his career.
But the 33-year-old netminder knows when to turn up. After willing the Habs past Toronto, Price’s task wasn’t quite so tall in Montreal’s four-game dismantling of Winnipeg. But the action is about to ramp right back up with Vegas on the horizon.
Ultimately, Price is a poor bet to win the Smythe, only because Montreal’s Cinderella run surely must come to an end eventually. Moneypuck.com currently lists the Habs at 35.8 percent to beat Vegas and just 18.8 percent to win the Cup.
The Conn Smythe has been awarded 55 times and has gone to a non-champion on only five occasions. The one thing working in Price’s favor in this regard: of those five players, four were goalies. That includes the latest to accomplish the feat, Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003). The only non-goalie? Flyers right winger Reggie Leach in 1976.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Andrei Vasilevskiy
Despite Price’s heroics, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the 2021 playoffs’ best goalie.
The 26-year-old Russian netminder has ascended to another planet and is a massive part of why the defending champs play on. Vasilevskiy, a Vezina finalist, is the owner of the playoffs’ second-best SP (.934) and a 2.24 GAA.
Those numbers, though strong, don’t scream “better than Price” at first blush. But Vasilevskiy really shines when you look under the hood. Per moneypuck.com, Vasilevskiy leads the playoffs in goals-saved above-expected (12.9), GSAE/60 (1.156), and wins above replacement (2.15) among goalies with at least four games played. For context, Price is third in each figure. Moneypuck started tracking that data in 2008-09. Since then, only one goalie with at least 10 starts in a given playoffs had a better GSAE/60 than Vasilevskiy has this year, among 96 such campaigns. That was Jonas Hiller (1.183) for Anaheim in 2009.
Tampa is unquestionably an elite team, but Vasilevskiy has been tasked with standing on his head even more than Price. That’s a by-product of the Lightning playing two series of firewagon hockey while Montreal stifled the Jets’ attack in the second round.
Among the 16 playoff teams, Tampa ranks last in scoring-chances-against/60, 13th in xGA/60 and 15th in HDCA/60 (all strengths, per naturalstattrick.com). They rank last among the final four in each. Not exactly numbers you’d expect of a team with the likes of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak on defense. Vasilevskiy has fanned the flames, though. He’s why Tampa has the best high-danger SP (.891) of any playoff team.
But Vasilevskiy isn’t the only guy going. Tampa has played better defensively at 5-on-5 than they have overall, and their otherworldly powerplay has also helped them out of trouble.
To that end, playoff-returnee Nikita Kucherov is a good secondary candidate for the Lightning. He leads all playoff scorers with five goals and 18 points in 11 games, good for 1.64 points per game. Since the turn of the millennium, only five players who played at least 10 playoff contests in a season have done better. That’s among 2790 qualifying playoff campaigns. If Kuch stays hot, and Tampa shores up the back end a bit, he could take it from his countryman.
Vegas Golden Knights – Mark Stone
It’s no secret Mark Stone is one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards. Earlier this month, he was named a Selke Trophy finalist for the second time in three years. In fact, the 29-year-old right winger has received Selke votes in each of his seven full NHL seasons.
And the former Ottawa Senator has shone for Vegas in the playoffs. With Chandler Stephenson and Max Pacioretty, his line has been vital in the Golden Knights shutting down star scorers like Kirill Kaprizov and Nathan MacKinnon this post-season.
MacKinnon ran roughshod over St. Louis in the first round and came into the Avalanche/Knights series looking like the odds-on Smythe favorite.
But then he was stopped. Or at least contained. MacKinnon had nine points in four games against the Blues and added three more in Colorado’s Game 1 blowout of the Knights. But that game was an aberration. Then, Stone and Co. went to work shutting the Avalanche superstar down.
Stone played 46:34 against MacKinnon at 5-on-5 in the series. And he and his linemates simply didn’t let MacKinnon breathe. They greatly limited the Nova Scotian’s chances, translating to MacKinnon being held pointless in Games 3, 4 and 5. He had just three assists overall after Game 1.
And Stone didn’t just play defense; his line generated scoring chances of their own against the heady competition. Stone had a 69.12 percent xGF against MacKinnon at 5-on-5. He didn’t light up the score sheet, but Stone had three points in the six games and came up clutch to score the Game 5 OT winner.
He has eight points in 13 games through two rounds, tied for second in team playoff scoring with Jonathan Marchessault and Max Pacioretty.
Marc-Andre Fleury and William Karlsson are also both fantastic candidates for Vegas. But Stone has deserved to take home some individual hardware for a long time. Perhaps he finally gets his due this year.
New York Islanders – Jean-Gabriel Pageau
The Islanders are a supremely difficult case. No one candidate has emerged head-and-shoulders above his peers to the point he’s their undisputed favorite for Conn Smythe candidacy.
Semyon Varlamov played fantastically against Boston in Round 2, to the tune of a .934 SP and a 2.26 GAA in the series. He stymied several high-danger chances for the B’s and was probably the Islanders’ most important player in the second round. But he’s split time with Ilya Sorokin in the playoffs, which will hurt him. And could mean coach Barry Trotz will have a short leash should things go sideways early in the Tampa Bay series – as is eminently possible against a team with the Lightning’s firepower.
The D-pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock was one of the best in the league during the regular season and has been tasked with shutting down opponents’ top lines in the playoffs. They’ve not had quite the same impact so far in the playoffs, but if they suddenly shut down Tampa’s – and, say, Vegas’ – top scorers? One of the two could have an outside shot at the Smythe.
Mat Barzal led the Isles in regular-season scoring and also stepped his game up in Round 2, putting up six points in six games against Boston after a quiet opening round. He’s now four points off the Isles’ team lead in playoff scoring, and, hey, the leading scorer is never a bad bet for the plaudit. Plus, if New York wins the Cup, it’s likely Barzal’s offensive output continued to rise over the next two rounds.
Deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri, who’s played much better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, is another with a shot at the honor.
But as it stands, Jean-Gabriel Pageau – this list’s second former Ottawa Senator – has the inside track. He plays in all situations and currently leads New York in playoff scoring with 13 points in 12 games. He’s a proven clutch performer and has 40 points in 69 career playoff games, including 24 points in 34 games as an Islander. His penchant for key goals could win voters over.