Going into Game 5, especially with the series capable of ending in the next game, thoughts turn to the Conn Smythe Trophy for the playoff’s most valuable player. If the series ends in the next game or two, the award will certainly go to a Penguins player. Even this deep in the playoffs, no single Penguins player stands out by very much. It has truly been a team game. To the point that some might wish to consider Penguins coach Mike Sullivan for the honor. But the coach is not on the ballot.
Sidney Crosby is deserving. San Jose has thrown the house at Crosby’s line to slow it down, even if his line has modestly-talented linemates (Conor Sheary in particular). Crosby’s effectiveness with modest linemates allows Pittsburgh to spread talent down the roster, which is key to the Penguins success. Crosby has 17 points in the playoffs and is minus-2. As the focal point for so much attention, he makes everyone else better. Which is very valuable.
Usually the starting goalie for the winning team gets consideration. Matt Murray has been good in goal for the duration of the playoffs, but with added emphasis on the Final, he slips a bit. He has not been Conn Smythe worthy in the Final for at least one simple reason. Sharks goalie Martin Jones has been better. Had he stolen a win in either Game 1 or 2, and he came close in both games, Jones would likely be the favorite going into Game 5.
Nick Bonino will be a popular consideration, with game winning goals in the opener against San Jose and the series-clinching goal in overtime against the powerful Capitals. He is tied for the team lead in even strength points with 14, and tied for best on the team with a plus-9 rating.
Two other players who deserve consideration are Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. Kessel leads Pittsburgh with 21 points, 11 at even strength, and has a plus-6 rating. Letang has 13 points, an impressive nine at even strength and a plus-5 rating. Letang has led a depleted Penguins blue line, which deserves added consideration. Both Kessel and Letang had strong playoffs, but both come up short of my current leader.
My Conn Smythe leader is Carl Hagelin. He sits at a plus-3 rating, with three points in the Final. On all three points, he made the defensive play which directly led to the goal.
He won the battle in the corner which led directly to the ‘Boninio Bonino Bonino‘ game winner in Game 1. He lifted Brenden Dillon’s stick to steal the puck, then made the pass which led directly led to the Pens lone regulation goal in Game 2 (Pittsburgh won in overtime). And while it wasn’t quite as critical, Hagelin effectively battled Dillon again late in Game 4, forcing the puck into a situation along the wall at center ice where the Pens outnumbered the Sharks. When the puck popped free, Hagelin won the race to it, then made a sweet feed to Eric Fehr for the game-clinching goal.
In each situation, Hagelin turned a play where the Sharks had better position or clear possession into a Penguins goal. In each of those goals, the easiest job belonged to the goal scorer. Hagelin’s hard work turned defense into offense into scores.
Hagelin’s work, both in the Stanley Cup Final and over the rest of the playoffs, holds up. When I mentioned Bonino was tied for the team lead in even strength points and plus-minus, the guy he’s tied with for both is Hagelin. The HBK line has been a difference maker in series after series. It makes sense for the Conn Smythe leader to come from this line. The tie-break goes to the guy who has been best of the three in the Stanley Cup Final. With Pittsburgh only a win away, the MVP leader is Hagelin.
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.