PHT Power Rankings: Win or lose the Conn Smythe should belong to Rask

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This much should be obvious: If the Boston Bruins win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream) starting goalie Tuukka Rask is going to be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

If that situation plays out, it is simply going to be his award.

Brad Marchand has been great. Patrice Bergeron has been outstanding. Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have carried the defense. Charlie Coyle has turned out to be a huge trade deadline pickup. All of them would be a worthy contender (or winner) in any other season. But for as good as they have all been none of them have played a bigger role in the Bruins’ postseason success than Rask, and he has done it from the very beginning of the playoffs with a consistency and level of dominance that should have erased any doubts his harshest critics may have ever had about him as a big-game goalie.

He is the biggest reason the Bruins have reached this point and the single biggest reason the St. Louis Blues have not already won their first Stanley Cup.

His performance this postseason is as good as we have ever seen from a goalie, highlighted by a .939 save percentage that ranks among the NHL’s all-time best.

He is just the fifth different goalie in NHL history to play in at least 20 playoff games and have a save percentage higher than .935, and he is the only goalie that has done it twice.

In his 23 appearances this season he has recorded a save percentage below .912 just five times. He has had zero games with a save percentage below .900. Just for context on that, every other goalie this postseason has had at least one such, while 15 different goalies had at least two.

His Stanley Cup Final counterpart, St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington, has had eight such games.

His save percentages by series have been .928, .948, .956, and .924.

No matter the metric, whether it is in any one individual game or the postseason as a whole, he has been sensational.

So sensational that the Conn Smythe Trophy should probably be his whether the Bruins win Game 7 or not.

It is not completely unheard of for a member of the losing team to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as it has happened five times in NHL history with Detroit’s Roger Crozier (1966), St. Louis’ Glenn Hall (1968), Philadelphia’s Reggie Leach (1976) and Ron Hextall (1987), and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003) all doing it. It is obviously extremely difficult to do, but it can happen when all of the right circumstances are in place.

It usually involves a goalie (as four of the previous ones were) putting together an incredible postseason where they help carry their team for the entire postseason and then loses to a team that does not really have a clear favorite of their own. That would pretty much describe the Blues if they win Game 7. Their success is not related to any one great individual performance that has stood out above the pack. At any given time it has been one of Ryan O'Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Jaden Schwartz carrying the offense, but none of them have done it consistently throughout the playoffs. Their goalie, Binnington, has really only been okay with moments of brilliance surrounded by obvious flaws and some downright bad games.

If the Blues win history and all modern precedent suggests one of their players will end up winning the Conn Smythe, but if we are being objective about this the true MVP of the playoffs has been standing in Boston’s net all postseason. The outcome of Game 7 is not going to change that. Without him playing at the level he has played at the Bruins have not already been eliminated in this series, they may have very easily been eliminated in Round 1 (against the Toronto Maple Leafs) or in Round 2 (against the Columbus Blue Jackets).

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take one more look at the 2019 Conn Smythe race where Rask is rightfully at the top of the pack on a tier all his own. Everyone else is (or should be) fighting for second place.

To the rankings!

The favorite

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. He has simply been the best and most impactful player on the ice in the playoffs and is probably the single biggest reason this series is still going on. His numbers are among the best we have ever seen from a goalie in a single playoff run and he has been so much better than everyone else that even if the Blues win Game 7 it should probably be his to take home. The chances of that actually happening are slim (there is plenty of precedent that says the series winner will get the MVP) but that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree.

[Related: Rask the rock steps up for Bruins in Game 6]

If the Blues win

2. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues. He has probably done enough in this series to get the award if the Blues take Game 7. He may not have consistently been the team’s most productive player or top scorer in the playoffs, but he is still probably their best all-around player and for much of the Stanley Cup Final has beaten Boston’s Patrice Bergeron at his own game as a top-tier two-way center. It is supposed to be an award for the entire postseason, but recency bias takes over in the Stanley Cup Final and O’Reilly has been a monster for the Blues in the series with four goals and three assists. He goes into Game 7 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. He played better than his numbers illustrated earlier in the playoffs, then he went on a white-hot run at the absolute best time for the Blues starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. As mentioned above the Blues do not have a clear-cut favorite at this point but the way Tarasenko put the offense on his back over the past month (six goals, five assists over the past 12 games) would make him a worthy candidate.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The long shots but still worth a mention

4. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. We have had Marchand at the top of the rankings for much of the playoffs, mostly because he has been awesome and probably their best overall player not named Rask. But we are dropping him down a few spots here for two reasons. First, he has had a quiet series against the Blues and that will no doubt impact voters when it comes time to cast their ballots (whether it should or not). Second, and most importantly, if the Bruins win Game 7 it just seems impossible to believe that anyone other than Rask will be taking home the MVP. That does not take away from the postseason Marchand has had, just that he has probably become a distant second on his team in the playoff MVP race.

5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. The Bruins’ defense was shorthanded for much of the regular season due to injury and that trend has continued at times in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara missed a game earlier this postseason and has played the past two games with a (reported) broken jaw. Matt Grzlecyk has been sidelined since Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Charlie McAvoy missed a game earlier in the playoffs due to suspension. While all of that has been happening Krug has been the one constant on the team’s blue line in the playoffs, appearing in every single game and putting up huge numbers offensively. He is the team’s third-leading scorer entering Game 7 with 18 points, including six in the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues.

6. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. If the Blues win he would be a nice sleeper choice because of what he did prior to the series. He has gone quiet against the Bruins, but his hot streak in previous played a huge role in helping the Blues to reach this point. 

7. Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins. After a slow start to his Bruins tenure after the trade from the Minnesota Wild Coyle ended up being everything the Bruins hoped he would be in the playoffs, adding a necessary secondary scoring boost to the lineup. Like Marchand and Krug (and anyone else on the Bruins) he has almost zero chance of taking the award away from Rask if the Bruins win, but he has still proven to be a huge addition that has helped drive the Bruins’ run.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
• Bruins push Stanley Cup Final to Game 7 by beating Blues
• Special teams an issue once again for Blues in Game 6 loss
• St. Louis newspaper gets roasted for ‘jinxing’ Blues before Game 6

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.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”