Conn Smythe watch: McDavid, Makar lead after First Round of NHL playoffs

The First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs concluded on Sunday night with a pair of thrilling overtime Game 7s that saw the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames advance to the Second Round.

Now that the First Round is in the books it is time for our first installment of this year’s Conn Smythe watch to see who stands out as the early leaders for the MVP of the Playoffs.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

McDavid was an absolute madman in their First Round series against the Los Angeles Kings, pretty much putting the team on his back in Games 6 and 7 of the series. He had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists), including six multi-point games. He had five over the final two games, having a hand in all but one of the Oilers’ goals during that stretch with their season on the line. He was everywhere. There is not an offensive player like him anywhere in the NHL.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

Speaking of unique, one-of-a-kind players in the NHL right now. Makar was a one-man wrecking crew for Colorado in its opening round sweep of the Nashville Predators. Just a truly incredible performance by one of the league’s rising megastars. He went head-to-head with fellow Norris Trophy finalist Roman Josi and completely stole the show, not only putting up fantastic offensive numbers, but controlling the game in every phase and every part of the ice. Nashville had no answer for him. Nobody does.

3. Carter Verhaeghe, Florida Panthers

It was not Jonathan Huberdeau or Aleksander Barkov that led Florida to a First Round win over Washington, the Panthers’ first playoff series win in 26 years, it was Verhaeghe. He has been a fantastic find for the Panthers the past two seasons (one of the many shrewd additions by their front office) and stole the show against the Capitals. He scored two-game winning overtime goals with the season on the line, including the series-clincher in Game 6. He had 12 points in the six games, including nine over the Panthers’ three consecutive wins to close out the series.

4. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

He has taken some heat at times during his Calgary career for his playoff performance, but there is no criticism to be had so far this season. He was outstanding against Dallas and had a massive Game 7 performance that included the overtime series-clincher. That came after setting up the game-tying goal earlier in the game. His 2021-22 performance, regular season and playoffs, is going to get him a boatload of money this offseason.

5. David Perron, St. Louis Blues

Perron is not the flashiest player (though he does have fantastic skill) and is not going to stick his glove in somebody’s face and start a skirmish after a whistle, but you want this guy on your team in the playoffs. He has been one of the Blues’ top offensive players since re-joining the team for a third time in 2018 and is having another really strong postseason. He was great against Minnesota with nine points (including five goals) in the six games.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

6. Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers.

Now here is a name I did not expect to see on this list. Smith ended the regular season playing his best hockey of the year, and for the most part was really, really strong in the First Round, posting two shutouts, including their Game 7 win. That is worth something.

7. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

He was kind of lost in the shadow of Makar’s performance in the First Round, but he was still his usual dominant self with five goals in four games. If he and Makar can duplicate that level of play in later rounds the Avalanche are going to be ridiculously tough to knock out.

8. Antti Raanta, Carolina Hurricanes

He was not available for the entire series due to injury, but when he was out there he was a big difference-maker for Carolina. The duo of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta seemed like a bit of a gamble coming into the season given their recent play in previous seasons and their health concerns, but that duo teamed up to win the Jennings Trophy and form an outstanding pairing all year. Both have had their injury problems late, and it remains to be seen what happens when Andersen is able to return, but Raanta held his own against Boston and helped get the Hurricanes through.

9. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

Interesting choice here maybe because he was invisible in the first five games of the series against Pittsburgh. But man, did he make an impact in Games 6 and 7, recording seven points to help the Rangers even the series and then win it. He started the Game 6 comeback with a pair of quick goals while factoring into seven of New York’s eight goals over the final two wins.

10. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

Interesting to think about how different this Blues season could have looked had Seattle opted to take Tarasenko in the expansion draft, or if they had find a taker to trade for him when he requested out. Tarasenko returned to the Blues, returned to be an elite player, and helped drive one of the league’s best offenses. He was great in the First Round wit five goals, including a hat trick in one of the series shifting games in the middle.

Quick hit honorable mentions

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning. Nobody on the Lightning had a truly dominant performance, but Palat stood out as a strong contributor and whose line carried play.

Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers. He was not his normal dominant self, but he did enough behind a Rangers defense that did not play well at all. He faced the most chances of any goalie in the First Round.

Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars. Yeah, his team lost. But did you see him play? He was sensational.

Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers. He had seven goals in the First Round.

Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames. He was also great in the Stars-Flames series, but he is going to get a much tougher test from Connor McDavid and Co. in the Second Round.

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. Steady hand on defense and a better offensive player than he gets credit for being.

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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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.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.