Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Ovechkin makes his move

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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.

[Related: Save of the playoffs highlights Holtby’s tremendous Game 2]

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.

Related: Capitals’ Lars Eller excels once again with increased responsibility

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.