Is there any stopping Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s reliving Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s 2003 post-season run.
The Vegas Golden Knights’ remarkable story is loads of improbable fun on the whole, but it’s just as remarkable if we peel back the individual layers. Consider, for example, that Marc-Andre Fleury, the guy recently maligned for some poor playoff years, the player deemed expendable in favor of Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, is having the best post-season of any NHLer. Fleury has to be current frontrunner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but who else joins him on the list of top candidates?
1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
The race truly isn’t close right now. ‘Flower’ is playing the best hockey of his life. The stats are cheat-code good: 1.53 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. For perspective, when Jean-Sebastian Giguere won the Conn Smythe with his legendary losing-effort run in 2003, he posted a 1.62 GAA and .945 SP. Tim Thomas in 2011: 1.98, .940. Jonathan Quick in 2012: 1.41, .946. Those performances came across four rounds, of course, but they give you a sense of Fleury’s trajectory so far in these playoffs. Among the 10 goalies to see 300 or more minutes (five games’ worth) at even strength, Fleury ranks first in low-, medium- and high-danger SP, so he’s turned away every caliber of scoring chance better than anyone.
Fleury has also masked some problems in the Golden Knights’ game during the playoffs. They average 2.90 goals, ninth in the field, and if you remove a seven-goal outburst in Game 1 against San Jose, they’re at 2.44 goals per game. Vegas allows 34.4 shots per game, a big bump after surrendering 30.7 in the regular season. Fleury’s been the superstar of these playoffs, period. William Karlsson has been great for Vegas, too, but it’s tough to imagine anyone other than Fleury taking the Conn Smythe if this team goes all the way.
2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Fleury’s the leader, but Scheifele has carved out a tier of his own at No. 2. His nine goals trail only the eliminated Jake Guentzel’s total, and Scheifele will likely take over the lead in short order if his Jets win Game 7 Thursday in Nashville and advance to the Western Conference final. Scheifele has also been a remarkably consistent weapon for the Jets, scoring in six different games, and spreading four across Round 1 against the Minnesota Wild and five against the Predators in Round 2. He’s been everything a contending team wants from its first-line center, putting up monster offensive numbers despite battling elite opposing blueliners almost every shift. The majority of his even-strength minutes in these playoffs have been against P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm.
3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
How symbolic was Ovie’s play on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-clinching overtime goal against Pittsburgh? Ovechkin backchecked, stole a pass and fed Kuznetsov with a perfect setup. Ovie has shown commitment to every area of the ice in these playoffs and has contributed big offense to boot. He’s sniped eight goals, and his 15 points are tied for the most of any player still alive in the post-season. Also, fair or not, he has narrative in his favor. It’s still human beings voting on the Conn Smythe, and if the Capitals win the Cup, Ovie’s story may be too tempting to pass up, even if it’s a subconscious decision.
4. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
Point isn’t the Lightning’s best player. That has to be Nikita Kucherov or Victor Hedman, each of whom is a viable Conn Smythe candidate. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been outstanding most of the time in these playoffs, too. But Point has been the difference maker, the guy who put this team over the top even when he’s been the one with the toughest matchups. At 5-on-5, he primarily faced Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak in Round 2, while the Miller-Stamkos-Kucherov line battled Boston’s second trio. And Point’s line with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson actually managed to slow the Bruins’ powerhouse top line in the final few games of the series. It was a remarkable defensive effort, and Point will have to lock horns with the Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson in Round 3. Point’s small stature is uber-deceiving because he’s such a do-it-all player.
5. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
If Holtby were a rookie instead of a veteran, his playoff storyline would be oddly similar to that of…Cam Ward in 2006. The first-place Carolina Hurricanes had dropped two games at home to the Montreal Canadiens to open Round 1. The Hurricanes removed starting goalie Martin Gerber in favor of rookie Ward, and he flourished, helping Carolina win the Cup and earning the Conn Smythe.
Meanwhile, the Caps dropped two home games to start Round 1 against Columbus, handed Holtby his starting job back over Philipp Grubauer, and the Capitals won four straight against Columbus just like those 2006 ’Canes did. Holtby has been a stabilizing presence, posting a .926 SP. He’s had a huge influence on Washington’s run to its first final four in 20 years.
Also in the Conn Smythe mix: Dustin Byfuglien, Filip Forsberg, Andrei Vasilevskiy, John Carlson, Nikita Kucherov, P.K. Subban, Evgeny Kuznetsov