As obnoxious as any Internet debate can be, bickering about who should win the Conn Smythe can help cement the below-the-fold stars who didn’t land the playoff MVP.
For example: it will never not boggle my mind that Chris Pronger ended his career without that award. Sure, he was a fire-breathing monster on the ice at times, but that was the point.
From a big picture perspective, it’s fitting that Alex Ovechkin won it this year after sparking the Washington Capitals’ run to a first-ever Stanley Cup. His 15 goals and 27 points were crucial to that run, and his epic celebration is leaving us hungover.
But was he truly the right choice from an objective standpoint? To my eyes, and in the mind of many others, Evgeny Kuznetsov would have been the truest choice.
So, with Ovechkin hamming it up (rightfully so) and Braden Holtby enjoying a well-deserved victory lap for “The Save” and reclaiming his spot among the elite, let’s take this moment to shine a light on another key element of Washington’s run: their two star centers.
A postseason for the ages
Again, it’s tough to deny that Kuznetsov was the real Conn Smythe winner.
He wasn’t that far behind Ovechkin’s 15 goals, as Kuznetsov netted 12. They both were tied with two game-winners in that regard.
The pivot’s playmaking was a sight to behold, as he collected almost a helper per game (20 assists in 24 contests).
It would be refreshing to see voters take especially strong work during the Stanley Cup Final into account, too. Now, Ovechkin was no slouch against the Golden Knights, generating three goals and two assists in five games. During that same span, Kuznetsov was killer, though, producing a goal and seven assists for eight points.
Kuznetsov’s 32 points weren’t just a playoff record for the Capitals and the top mark for the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That mark also stands as the most points generated in a postseason since Evgeni Malkin collected a whopping 36 points during Pittsburgh’s 2008-09 surge. (Ovechkin’s 27 points leave him tied with Sidney Crosby‘s work last postseason for ninth best during that same period of time.)
Remarkably, Malkin’s 36 points and Kuznetsov’s 32 also stand as the two best outputs since the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season; you need to go as far back as Joe Sakic’s 34 points from 1995-96 before you’ll find a total that dislodges Kuznetsov for second place.
Praising Kuznetsov isn’t about denigrating Ovechkin, who enjoyed a run for the ages and deserves to soak in the limelight after a decade of absorbing an unfair portion of Capitals criticism.
Instead, it’s about doing our best to make sure that his magical run isn’t lost in time.
“He was unbelievable,” Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov after the series, via the Associated Press. “He makes the magic over there.”
Backstrom shows his might
Kuznetsov managed to generate point after point even though it seemed like he might miss a game or more of the series thanks to a hard hit by Brayden McNabb. That thought dovetails nicely into much-needed praise for Nicklas Backstrom.
While you only need to glance at the very top of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ points leaders to notice Kuznetsov’s presence, Backstrom’s work was diluted by being limited to 20 games.
Despite clearly playing at less than 100 percent, Backstrom managed more than a point per contest, generating 23 in those 20 games. His assist on this Ovechkin power-play goal stood as a healthy reminder that it’s easy to scream “Cover Ovechkin’s office,” but it’s also easy to forget that the Capitals simply have the passers to make that bread-and-butter play so difficult to stop.
Seriously, acting as though it’s “easy” to stop that is the ultimate in armchair quarterbacking/defending. There aren’t many humans capable of getting that pass through an entire penalty kill unit, but Backstrom is one of them (Kuznetsov, too).
Of course, points aren’t everything. Luckily, Backstrom remained his Selke-level self during the postseason, allowing Barry Trotz to pick and choose matchups how he pleased. The Kuznetsov – Backstrom combination was instrumental in allowing the Capitals to go toe-to-toe with the Penguins’ scoring depth, the Lightning’s dangerous weapons, and the Golden Knights’ impressive top line.
For a player who suffered his own torment during clutch moments, Backstrom showed his toughness and made a real argument for how great he can be.
Look, we can debate Ovechkin vs. Kuznetsov all day, but they were both fantastic. The point is to recall their efforts, not to mention great work by Holtby, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and others. Here’s hoping this post fights the fading of such memories.
Now, let’s get back to more important matters: bickering about Chris Pronger.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.