The Stanley Cup Final could be over as early as Thursday thanks to the Pittsburgh Penguins taking a 3-1 series lead with a win in Game 4 on Monday night. Despite the San Jose Sharks' impressive run to the Final, they have seen their scoring dry up amid relentless pressure and committed shot-blocking from their opponents.
Because of Pittsburgh's commitment to defense and now their stranglehold on the series, our Conn Smythe Power Rankings look quite a bit different from just before the Stanley Cup Final began. With the Penguins in control of the series, it's an easy call to slot their best candidates ahead of anyone on the Sharks. However, it's not necessarily easy to pick which of the Penguins is most deserving of the postseason MVP award.
Part of that is a credit to their total team effort throughout the playoffs, but particularly in the Final. Most of the Penguins' goals have come from unlikely sources instead of the usual suspects.
As of now, though, based on the entire body of work in the playoffs, three players stand out as the Penguins' best candidates for the Conn Smythe -- Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and rookie goalie Matt Murray. There's a good case to be made for all three as the postseason MVP. And with that, our latest Conn Smythe Power Rankings:
1. Phil Kessel, Penguins (Last ranking: 3): If we're looking at the total body of work in these playoffs, no Penguin has been more productive than Kessel, who leads the team with 21 points. In each of the previous three series leading to the Stanley Cup Final, Kessel had six points. He has three in the Final, including a goal in Game 2 and two assists from the big Game 4 win.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in Kessel's candidacy as the team's MVP, beyond the points, is how much Pittsburgh is dominating the scoring at even strength. The Penguins have 15 goals at five-on-five with Kessel out there and only seven against. The HBK line that also features Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino has been flat out dominant with their speed and offensive pressure. Kessel is its greatest weapon and has helped make the Pens a team that is impossible to adequately line match against.
Additionally, in the time of year where it's supposed to be most difficult to score, Kessel has basically been slump-proof in these playoffs. He has been held without a point in seven games this postseason, but only once was he skunked in consecutive games. He's also averaging over four shots on goal per game, making him one of the Penguins' most consistent threats game-to-game.
If Kessel gets a point or two more in a clinching game, if the Penguins do manage to clinch, it puts him in a good position to win the Smythe for the total body of work he's had in these playoffs.
2. Matt Murray, Penguins (8): In the 51 years since the Conn Smythe has been handed out to the playoff MVP, a rookie has won it just four times. Each of those times, the player was a goalie, but there's only one that has a similar story to Murray. With 19 playoff games under his belt, Murray has now played six more games in the postseason than he did in the regular season. That's reminiscent of Ken Dryden's star turn in the 1971 Stanley Cup playoffs when he went 12-8 in backstopping the Montreal Canadians to the Cup after appearing in just six regular season games.
Murray has been quick to deflect any comparisons to Dryden, but the way he has played this postseason could make him a folk hero. In 19 appearances, he has a 14-5 record. One more victory ties him with Patrick Roy, Ron Hextall and Cam Ward for most wins by a rookie goalie in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Meanwhile, Murray has a .925 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average.
The few blemishes on Murray's candidacy are minor. The first is that he hasn't played in all of the team's playoff games like Kessel or Crosby. He missed two games with an injury that carried over from the regular season and was benched in favor of Marc-Andre Fleury during the Eastern Conference finals in one of coach Mike Sullivan's few missteps this postseason. Secondly, the Penguins have been just so darn good in front of him. They're typically dominating the shot counts, possession game and they're blocking a boat load of shots, too. Still, without Murray playing as solidly as he has, particularly with how he has responded to losses (5-0 record after defeats), he has helped propel this team to new heights.
3. Sidney Crosby, Penguins (5): If you've been watching the Stanley Cup Final closely, Sidney Crosby's impact on it has been impossible to miss. The points are not coming in bunches for him as they have in previous postseason performances, but he's still drawing a ton of attention from the opposition. That's opening things up for everyone else.
Tied for second on the penguins with Bonino and Evgeni Malkin with 17 points, Crosby has had some meaningful goals and assists this postseason. He scored three game-winners in the series against the Lightning, including one in overtime. He also helped set up Conor Sheary's Game 2 OT winner in the Stanley Cup Final with some excellent faceoff work.
Against Kessel's production and consistency in production over the entire playoffs and Murray's presence in net, it might be a little tougher for Crosby to overtake his teammates. Among the counts against him, eight of his 17 points came against the hapless Rangers in an easy first-round series as the Capitals managed to keep him mostly quiet in that series. Still, beyond the box scores, Crosby's impact has been enormous.
4. Logan Couture, Sharks (2): Like most of his teammates in San Jose's top six, Couture's production has gone dry. He has two points in the Stanley Cup Final, both assists, to maintain the postseason's scoring lead with 26. It's been a remarkable run for the Sharks' second-line center, but he and his teammates have hit a substantial wall in the form of the Penguins' relentless attacking and shot blocking.
5. Brent Burns, Sharks (4): His two-assist game in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final has Burns tied for second among all players with 22 points in the postseason, but he's had his own struggles in the final series. The offensive-minded defenseman has been stymied more than anyone by the Penguins' shot blocking. His inability to get shots through has significantly hindered the Sharks' offensive capabilities as he can so often be their driving force on the ice. It's been a little surprising he isn't getting more ice time.
6. Joe Pavelski, Sharks (1): After a dominant goal-scoring performance in the playoffs coming into the Stanley Cup Final, Pavelski still leads all players with 13 goals. However, of the Sharks' top players, it seems Pavelski has struggled the most against Pittsburgh. The team's captain has no points in the series and until his five-shot outburst on Monday, he had four shots in the entire series to that point. Pavelski is as big a reason as any of the Sharks that they're in the final series, but he's become a symbol of their difficulties against the Penguins over the last week.
7. Kris Letang, Penguins (6): The Penguins have survived a perceived shallowness on their defense because Letang can play a bazillion (approximate) minutes. The veteran defenseman also has been producing. He has 13 points in the postseason including three assists in the Stanley Cup Final. Actually averaging nearly 29 minutes a game, Letang has managed to soften the blow of losing top-four defenseman Trevor Daley while also significantly impacting the Penguins' possession game with his slick puck-moving capabilities. He won't overtake the other three teammates listed ahead of him, but his performance is worthy of notice.
8. Martin Jones, Sharks (NR): Based on what he's done in the Stanley Cup Final, Jones gets the slight nod over Joe Thornton for the final spot on our power rankings. The 26-year-old netminder in his first year as a No. 1 starter has been San Jose's best player in the Cup Final so far. He's kept them in games and has given them a chance to win in every game so far despite facing a continual barrage of shots. Over the full postseason, Jones has a 13-9 record having started every game for the Sharks. He also has a .920 save percentage, 2.19 goals-against average and three shutouts. Even if the Sharks don't win the series, their No. 1 goalie has arrived.