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.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.