Conn Smythe Trophy watch: Leading candidates after Game 2

In some ways, the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks’ most prominent Conn Smythe Trophy candidates probably haven’t changed much since we last took a look in mid-May. Yet with the field of teams down to two and Vancouver’s first two home games in the books, we can take a deeper look at which Canucks and Bruins players have the best chance to win the playoff MVP award.

We’ll start with the Canucks since they’re up 2-0 in the series.

Vancouver Canucks

Frontrunner: Ryan Kesler – One thing I think many potential voters overlook is the benefits Kesler receives from a matchup standpoint. He often draws easier opportunities to score since the Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara-type defensemen are usually sent at the Sedin twins. Let’s not forget that the Sedins took over the third period of Game 2 and weren’t much less dominant against the San Jose Sharks than Kesler was versus the Nashville Predators.

Of course, the converse side of getting better chances to score is that he also often faces much more difficult defensive assignments than the Sedin twins. Kesler does a little of everything from scoring (19 points in 20 games), winning faceoffs (54.6 to Henrik Sedin’s weak 45.6 percent) and killing penalties (he’s averaging 3:04 minutes of shorthanded per game, first among Vancouver forwards and second overall). He’s the do-everything forward for the Canucks and while many knew he was an impact player already, the 2011 playoffs have been a star-making experience for the American two-way forward.

His big goals and assists late in many games make him a no-brainer No. 1 candidate … for now.

Strong candidate 1: Roberto Luongo – For all the abuse he took in the first round, he’s been a huge difference maker in the playoffs. Despite a great performance by Tim Thomas in Game 1, Luongo stopped all 36 shots for a 1-0 shutout. He made 28 out of 30 saves to turn Boston away in Game 2 and really hasn’t had many low moments since struggling against the Chicago Blackhawks. Whether it’s skin-tight games against the Predators/Bruins or more wide-open affairs versus the Sharks and Blackhawks, he’s been the better goalie more often than not. Overall, his numbers are fantastic, with 14-6 record, .928 save percentage and 2.16 GAA.

Strong candidate(s) 2 and 3: The Sedin twins – Henrik Sedin has a league-leading 21 points and Daniel Sedin has 18 himself. Kesler is the obvious frontrunner right now, but if Henrik or Daniel put together a couple more multiple point explosions like they did at times in the Sharks series, you just never know.

Dark horse: Alex Burrows – The noted vegetarian might not be as steady of a threat as the other three forwards, but he’s made some huge plays in the postseason. Obviously, those two big OT goals would be the video clips of note, but he has 17 points in 20 games overall.

Boston Bruins

Frontrunner: Tim Thomas – The gulf between Thomas and any other Bruins contributor – even Zdeno Chara – seems pretty huge if you ask me. Thomas hasn’t always been pretty (and allowed a few bad goals, most notably that Game 2 OT tally), but the sum of his work has been astounding. If the Bruins get back into this series, it’ll probably take an astounding set of performances by Thomas, which would make his chances that much stronger. It’s been a great run either way, considering that fact that he has a .93 save percentage in the postseason, with a nice 2.27 GAA.

Strong candidate: Zdeno Chara – It’s been an up-and-down playoffs at times for the Bruins big defenseman, but he’s done everything for Boston. He plays huge minutes (28:17 per game), shows a willingness to comply with wacky power play experiments and has more better days than bad ones amid a very suspect Bruins defense.

Dark horse: David Krejci – The most underrated part of the Bruins’ team is their impressive top line, powered most by Krejci. He has 18 points in 20 games, including 10 goals (four game-winners). If Dan Hamhuis can’t play again, his line could create enough opportunities to turn this series around. An explosive finals round could give Krejci a solid chance to win the Smythe.

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With 2-5 games remaining, there’s still plenty of time for these (and other) players to improve their argument for one of the best trophies in hockey. Who’s your frontrunner so far?

Doc Emrick looks back at one-of-a-kind 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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How did they pull this off?

During most playoff years, we ask this of the players. And, no doubt about it, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed a lot of perseverance fighting through bubble life to win the Stanley Cup. Doing so while Steven Stamkos played three minutes qualifies as “How did they pull this off?” material.

But, in the case of the 2020 Stanley Cup being handed out following the playoffs, this time we’re talking about the NHL, and everyone involved in keeping the playoff bubble from bursting.

It’s still surreal that we got this far.

NBC’s own Doc Emrick narrated the unlikely journey that was the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which you can watch in the video above.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This unlikely journey took us from second training camps, play resuming on Aug. 1, and a field of 24 teams narrowing down to the Stanley Cup champion Lightning. As Emrick says, it felt like a dream, but it came true for the NHL, even if it happened amid a nightmarish time.

Time will tell when the 2020-21 season may begin, but either way, it will be tough to forget the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if you’re not a Lightning fan.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

More on the Lightning winning the Stanley Cup

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning had big Stanley Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman

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If you’re like me, you’re prone to debate just about every Conn Smythe winner. That tradition continued with Victor Hedman winning the Conn Smythe as the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup. And, as usual, you have to be a real nitpicker to actually get mad about Hedman winning it.

Because, again, Hedman ended up playing a huge role in the Lightning’s success, as the stupendous Swede has done for most of his already-impressive career.

Victor Hedman topped all Lighting players in ice time during their 2020 Stanley Cup run, and logged 25:01 time on ice (with an assist) in that clinching Game 6. Hedman flirted with a point-per-game (10 goals, 22 points in 25 games), a rare run for any skater, let alone a defenseman.

So you’re really splitting hairs by arguing against Hedman. With that, (powers up hair-slitting machine).

Other Lightning Conn Smythe possibilities after Hedman wins it

Brayden Point

TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Conn Smythe voting ended up being very close between Hedman and Brayden Point.

That’s like, “Two bad NFL wild-card teams who both probably shouldn’t make the playoffs, but one has to,” close.

Point scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on the power play in Game 6, yet another example of the small forwards oversized clutchness.

Point finished with a whopping 14 goals and 33 points in 23 playoff games. If his injury(injuries?) carried over from the Islanders series, it was tough to tell.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Interestingly, Point was killer on the power play against the Stars, but otherwise roasted opponents most at even-strength. He generated 26 out of his 33 points when everything was even. In other words, Point often scored points in the toughest situations.

If I were voting, it would have come down to Point and his partner in crime …

Nikita Kucherov

After leading the NHL regular season in scoring during the 2018-19 season, Kucherov topped all point producers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kucherov grabbed an assist on that Point Cup-clincher, giving him 34 points in 25 games.

Much like Point, it was fair to wonder how healthy Kucherov was during this run. And it was unhealthy for opponents to wonder how much more damage a full-strength Kucherov might have managed.

(Splitting-hairs machine chimes in: that said, if you’re choosing between Point and Kucherov, Kucherov was more assist-heavy [7 G, 27 A]. He also leaned more on the power play than Point.)

( … Speaking of splitting, maybe Kucherov and Point split some votes?)

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Normally, when a goalie manages a .927 save percentage during a Stanley Cup run, that goalie is the talk of the town. Frankly, Vasilevskiy was on the tips of fewer tongues than Stars goalie Anton Khudobin for most (if not all) of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Granted, Khudobin presented a more entertaining underdog story.

Vasilevskiy is as close to “established” as a goalie can get in the modern NHL. He’s the rare contemporary first-rounder. Vasilevskiy boasts prototypical size, and carries the $9.5M cap hit that makes you merely expect great things.

Yet, if you followed goalies, you realize such performances are far from foregone conclusions.

Beyond winning a Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy pulled off one of the only things he hadn’t done during this run in Game 6: he earned a shutout. Otherwise, his run was almost completely spotless. During a postseason when teams leaned on both of their goalies to an unusual degree, Vasilevskiy played every minute for the Lightning. And they never stared into the brink of elimination during this entire run.

Conn Smythe voters couldn’t have been blamed for choosing Point, Kucherov, or Vasilevskiy, but Hedman was a fantastic choice, too. This rich list of potential winners underscores the Lightning’s daunting power, and is a quick reference as to how they won the Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos being limited to about three minutes of playing time.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration

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After controlling Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Beyond repeat Stanley Cup champion Patrick Maroon, winning the Stanley Cup was a first for every Lightning player. Considering the road the Lightning traveled to this Stanley Cup victory, should it be surprising that they decided to mix up the celebration, and create a great moment with Steven Stamkos in the process?

As Gary Bettman noted, the Lightning chose to take that group Stanley Cup celebration photo before the trophy was raised.

In an emotional moment, Lightning captain Stamkos ended up on the ice, becoming the first Lightning player to raise the Stanley Cup, prompting a jubilant celebration from teammates. It all makes that lone goal from Game 3 even sweeter for Stamkos.

Great stuff.

Following Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman got his chance to raise the Stanley Cup. Some veterans took their laps, while eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others celebrated with the Stanley Cup.

Along with the players, Jon Cooper and GM Julien BriseBois received a chance to bask in the glory. Both played big roles in the Lightning getting this far (as did former GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Red Wings).

Watch highlights of the Lightning’s 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the video below:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Maroon becomes back-to-back Cup winner with Blues, Lightning

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EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Patrick Maroon didn’t get the chance this time to lower the Stanley Cup so that his son, Anthony, could kiss it before lifting it again over his shoulders.

Anthony stayed home in the U.S., as did fiancee Francesca as Maroon celebrated with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night as he became a back-to-back NHL champion. A year ago on the ice in Boston, the St. Louis native won the Cup with the Blues, his family by his side.

Maroon had his phone out for the party on the ice in Edmonton after his key steal helped set up the second goal in the 2-0 win that sealed the title.

”Just celebrating with my future wife Francesca and then my family back home,” he explained. ”I thought last year was something else, but this year was something special. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on so many good hockey teams, and to go back to back, most people don’t get the chance to play in a Stanley Cup Finals, I got to do it back to back, and win. I got the chills talking about this.”

According to NHL Stats, Maroon is just the eighth player to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons with different teams and the first since Cory Stillman in 2004 and 2006, sandwiched around the lockout year.

”It’s extremely different,” Maroon said before the final wrapped up, acknowledging the decision for his family not to join him in the bubble. ”It’s kind of been a dream. I’ve been living in a dream, honestly.”

Maroon will be the first player since Claude Lemieux in the 1990s to get his name on the Cup in consecutive years with different teams, and only those two and Stillman have done it since the expansion era began in 1967.

”I’ve been fortunate to play on some really, really good hockey teams,” Maroon said before Game 5. ”I’ve been fortunate to come back to the Stanley Cup Final, even though there’s a lot of guys that play in the league for 10-15 years that only get one opportunity at this thing. I’ve been fortunate to get two whacks at it.

”I’ve been blessed, and without my family and my teammates for all the support, I don’t think it happens.”

If the Blues don’t let Maroon go and the Lightning don’t sign him, maybe none of this happens. Tampa Bay is a different team with him after falling short many years in a row.

Maroon was a late-summer signing a couple of weeks before training camp in the summer of 2019. It was his second consecutive one-year deal, now with his sixth NHL organization, worth $900,000 – roughly half his St. Louis salary.

It has been a perfect fit, even if Maroon hasn’t been as prominent as he was in the Blues’ run, when he scored a series-clinching, double-overtime goal in the second round to eliminate the same Dallas Stars he and the Lightning defeated in the final. But along with trade deadline pickups Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman and free agent signings Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn, Maroon has played a big role in bulking up the Lightning enough to get the job done.

”The M.O. on us and the Lightning over the last few years is that they’re offensive and they’re skilled and the way to beat them is to play them hard,” said Game 4 overtime hero Kevin Shattekirk, also a new addition. ”Things have changed this year.”

Coach Jon Cooper knew Maroon had the potential to change the complexion of the team. He coached Maroon from 2005-07 with Texarkana and St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League, kept in touch over the years and followed his career closely.

Cooper remembers Maroon going from an overweight 17-year-old who had to do extra work to get in shape to a dominant player at that level. Maroon grew into his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame as a player, grew up as a person and became an NHL regular.

In February, Maroon’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer – he told NBC she beat it and was healthy – and he was hoping to bring the Cup home to her.

”You never know when you’re going to come back, so you’ve got to take every opportunity and cherish it,” he said.

Maroon dressed in all 25 Tampa Bay games this postseason, providing some much-needed muscle and filling a vital role in front of the net on the power play.

”He’s a good teammate, and he knows his role, so he knows the minutes he’s going to get,” Cooper said. ”I’d give guys roles and make sure they all know what they are, and he knows his. He’s got character, and he is a character. It’s two good attributes to have.”

Watching Maroon play elsewhere, Cooper often ”sneakily” whispered to former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, ”Hey Steve, if we got the chance.”

It was new GM Julien BriseBois who got the chance and took it, and now they are all Stanley Cup champions.