When we last checked in with our Conn Smythe Power Rankings before the start of the Stanley Cup Final I argued that it was still Marc-Andre Fleury‘s award to lose, and that barring a total collapse in this series he might have a case to win it even if the Vegas Golden Knights end up losing to the Washington Capitals.
Given that the series is tied one game apiece as it shifts to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday night it would be way too premature to say that has happened. Still, through the first two games of the series Fleury has given up seven goals on 54 shots and has an .870 save percentage. Some regression was inevitable given the super-human level he played at through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but Vegas isn’t winning this series with .870 goaltending from their starting goalie.
With that said, for the first time since our initial look at the Conn Smythe race way back in the first-round we have a new leader in the clubhouse.
The new leader is…
1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He has been everything for the Capitals in these playoffs and has not only scored a ton of goals and recorded a ton of points, he’s scored — and been a part of — quite a few big goals, the type of moments that can forever chance a tired, lazy narrative about a player’s big-game ability. He assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s series-clinching goal in the second round after scoring a game-winner of his own earlier in the series in the final minute of regulation. He set the tone early in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final by scoring what would be the eventual game-winner. He already has 13 goals in the playoffs — including the two aforementioned game-winners — and gave the Capitals a second period lead in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final with his fifth power play goal. He has at least one point in 16 of the Capitals’ playoff games and is the engine that makes what has been an historically good power play unit work. Only one player has scored at least 15 goals in a single postseason run over the past 20 years (Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2008-09 playoffs) and Ovechkin has a very real chance to not only match that number, but perhaps even exceed it.
2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. If Vegas ends up winning this series Fleury is going to win it, there is no doubt about that. But as we sit here right now after two games in the series his stranglehold on the award (the one where he wins the award whether his team wins or loses the series) has slipped just a little. As I mentioned before the series even though he has been on the winning side of his two previous postseason matchups against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals they have been able to get to him. So far in this series they have done the same thing. If that continues it will all come down to the goalie at the other side of the rink.
3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. This is probably not his best postseason performance, but man has he had his moments. Back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to help the Capitals come from behind in the series? That save on Alex Tuch in the closing minutes of the third period of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup Final? If the Capitals go on to win this series that save will be talked about in Washington forever.
4. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights’ top line has been driving much of their offense this postseason, and Marchessault is the player that makes the line go. When the line of Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Golden Knights have controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts and outscore their opponents by a 19-12 margin. When none of them are on the ice the Golden Knights still have strong goal advantage (12-6) but their territorial advantage all but disappears (only 48 percent of the shot attempts) which makes things a lot more difficult for their goaltender. When Smith and Karlsson are on the ice without Marchessault, an admittedly small sampling of only around 20 minutes the Golden Knights attempt just 40 percent of the shot attempts. He drives play, he is their leader in every major offensive category, and he is their best player.
5. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. I want to put him higher. He should probably be higher given his production, the big goals he has scored, and the fact he took an 11-game point streak into Wednesday’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. His injury situation and the fact we do not really know his status for the rest of the series leaves him here in the fifth spot.
He won’t win, but worth a mention: Lars Eller, Washington Capitals. When it comes to the Capitals’ Conn Smythe candidates Eller is behind the obvious choices in Ovechkin, Holtby, and Kuznetsov, but do not overlook his value. Not only does he have 16 points (an impressive total on its own), but he has been incredible in stepping up for both of the Capitals’ top centers (Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov) when they have been out of the lineup and has played an excellent two-way game. He has the points, he has the big goals, he has great possession numbers.
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub