Race for the Conn Smythe Trophy

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Now that we’re down to the Conference finals in the East and West, it’s time to get serious about breaking down the race for the other postseason trophy to be handed out at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals.

The Conn Smythe Trophy goes out to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup playoffs and with just four teams to choose from, we’ve got some good cases being made from each of them. We’ll take a look at each team and who the leader and the dark horse candidates are. Think a case needs to be made for someone else? You can always shout at us in the comments.

Boston Bruins

Front runner: Boston is all about the stellar work from Tim Thomas in goal. With a 2.03 goals against average and a .934 save percentage through 11 games in the postseason, Thomas is, statistically speaking, the second best goalie in the playoffs. He’s been rock solid the way he has been all year long in goal for the Bruins as he appears headed for another Vezina Trophy.

When things have gotten too wild around the Bruins goal, Thomas has been cool and collected shutting down opponents. Considering the Bruins haven’t been lights out with the offense, you have to look to the defense and goaltending to find the guys carrying the load and Thomas has been their man.

Dark horse pick: This might be more about betting on the future, but let’s take a look at David Krejci. Through the entire first series against Montreal, Krejci was invisible scoring just one goal. Against Philadelphia, however, Krejci piled up four goals and five assists and now with team playoff points leader Patrice Bergeron, Krejci’s importance is even higher to the team to lead the way at center.

San Jose Sharks

Front runner: Ryane Clowe is the guy we’re eyeballing as the favorite here. With 13 points he’s the team leader and he’s been instrumental to energizing the team throughout the playoffs. It’s no mistake that the Red Wings played their best game of the playoffs against San Jose in Game 6 with Clowe out of the lineup. Clowe plays physical, plays an offensive game that’s more grimy than it is pretty, and finds ways to upset opposing teams routinely. He should have a lot of chirping targets against Vancouver.

Dark horse: Joe Pavelski. Pavelski has just five goals and two assists through the playoffs but name a goal he’s scored that hasn’t been absolutely huge. Pavelski was a bit quiet during the Detroit series with two goals and an assist, but if Pavelski picks up on his heroics against Vancouver and gets the Sharks into their first Stanley Cup final, the legend of Joe Pavelski will only grow larger.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Front runner: Dwayne Roloson is the man. I know the first name that comes to mind is Martin St. Louis and for good reason as he’s got 13 points tying him for second in the playoffs. Roloson, however, has been out of his mind good. Roloson leads all goalies in the playoffs in goals against average (2.01), save percentage (.941), shots against and saves (389, 366). Without Roloson playing as well as he has, the Lightning are toast in the playoffs and likely booted in the first round by Pittsburgh. His work in frustrating the Caps was just as admirable. When you’re as good as he’s been in the playoffs, it’s hard not to pick him as the favorite.

Dark horse: Take your pick between Sean Bergenheim and Steve Downie here. Bergenheim is tied for the lead in goals scored in the playoffs with seven while Downie has shaken off his agitator reputation to put up 12 points. Virtual no-name guys rising to the occasion make for a great story but the truth is, Tampa is loaded with guys who could be in the running.

Vancouver Canucks

Front runner: Ryan Kesler is the runaway favorite here for Vancouver. Kesler’s work against Chicago was quiet but helpful earning four assists. Against Nashville, however, he was a holy terror on ice racking up five goals and six assists. Kesler’s 15 points tie him with the ousted Pavel Datsyuk for the NHL playoff lead in points. While the Sedin twins haven’t exactly been other-worldly the way they ought to be, Kesler’s been dynamic all around.

Dark horse: It’s not really a dark horse pick, but Roberto Luongo has to be up there. He’s earned a shutout in each round of the playoffs, his numbers were unreal against Nashville (1.63 GAA, .933 SV%), and now that he’s past the bogeymen from Chicago, another round or two of putting up big numbers like that could help him steal the trophy from his teammate if the Canucks win the Stanley Cup.

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski