Here’s a look at the Conn Man, Next In Line and Long Shot for each of the NHL’s final four playoff teams:
Conn Man: Captain, my captain. Ryan Getzlaf, the Ducks’ warrior king, has been the team’s most important player in the post-season. He’s battling for the playoff lead in goals and points, and he’s playing more than 24 minutes per game, most among NHL forwards. That’s skewed by overtime, but it’s still more than three minutes better than any other forward in the conference finals (teammate Ryan Kesler and Ottawa’s Kyle Turris are next, averaging around 21 minutes per game). Ten years after leading Anaheim to its first Stanley Cup as an up-and-coming NHL sophomore, Getzlaf is looking to bookend the occasion with a second championship as a still-got-it grizzled vet.
Next In Line: Jakob Silfverberg was tied for the playoff lead in goals, with nine in 15 games, including a series-saving overtime tally in Game 4 in the second round against Edmonton. He’s an integral part of the Ducks’ second line with Kesler, often going up against the opposition’s top unit, and he’s also leading the post-season in shots (57, nearly four per game).
Long Shot: Pick a young Ducks defenseman, any young Ducks defenseman. Cam Fowler, for example. At 25 years old, he joined Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen as one of the old-timers on Anaheim’s blueline until Kevin Bieksa, 35, returned from a three-week injury layoff in Game 4 against Nashville. Fowler is playing close to 27 minutes per game – second only to Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (28-plus minutes per game) among defensemen in the conference finals – and he’s a key to Anaheim’s attack as a smooth-skating, shot-taking, puck-moving defender.
Conn Man: The Predators have several players who are building a case for post-season MVP honors, but the line starts behind Pekka Rinne. The veteran goalie is the biggest reason for the deepest playoff run in franchise history, and he’s pretty much lapping the field in save percentage and goals-against average. To be sure, he has great help in front of him, from the Preds’ stupendous blueline to the team’s overall defensive commitment. But it all begins with Rinne, who has been Nashville’s most valuable player since Day 1 of the Cup tournament.
Next In Line: The hallmark of the franchise since its inception has been defense, but the Preds finally have a bona fide No. 1 line to kick-start the offense. Ryan Johansen is rolling along at almost a point-a-game pace in the playoffs, with wingers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson close behind. Johansen, a legitimate No. 1 center whose best years are still ahead of him, is the straw that stirs the drink. (Just ask Ryan Kesler.) Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin is the only forward in the 2017 playoffs with more assists than Johansen.
Long Shot: Nashville’s top-four on defense is the best in the league, period. The pairings of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, and P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, have been on the ice for more than 50 minutes a game in the post-season. Mobility and offensive upside are their trademarks, but they’re no slouches in the defensive zone and they have a physical edge as well. Josi and Subban are the headliners, but Ellis has been a revelation in these playoffs, overcoming a lack of size (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) with his tenacity and heads-up play. Plus, he’s approaching Brent Burns territory with that beard.
Conn Man: Seriously? It’s Erik Karlsson. The Senators wouldn’t be in the playoffs if not for their all-world defenseman, never mind pushing for a spot in the Stanley Cup final. Next question.
Next In Line: Bobby Ryan struggled through the worst (full) season of his career, bottoming out with personal lows in goals and points. He wanted redemption in the playoffs, and he’s got it. After failing to score a game-winning goal during the regular season, Ryan has three in the playoffs, including two in overtime. Craig Anderson, the Sens’ unshakable goalie, also rates as a could-be Conn Smythe Trophy contender.
Long Shot: Passion, penalty-killing and a penchant for four-goal games with an overtime kicker is more than enough to earn Jean-Gabriel Pageau a fringe MVP mention. He’s the posterboy for Ottawa’s hardworking, defensively aware approach.
Conn Man: Marc-Andre Fleury sat and watched as upstart rookie goalie Matt Murray led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup last spring. This year, thanks to an injury that Murray sustained in warm-ups prior to the opening game of the playoffs, Fleury is back in Pittsburgh’s crease and he’s making the most of the opportunity. The Penguins probably wouldn’t have beaten the Blue Jackets in the first round – and they almost certainly wouldn’t have beaten the Capitals in Round 2 – if not for Fleury’s heroics in net. He was pulled after allowing four goals in the first period of Game 3 against the Senators – which led to Murray’s getting the start in Game 4 – but it shouldn’t detract from the fact Fleury has been Pittsburgh’s most valuable Penguin through two-and-a-half rounds.
Next In Line: Evgeni Malkin is leading the playoffs in scoring and, for a while, he was on pace to best his 36-point performance in 2009, when he won his first Cup – and Conn Smythe Trophy – with the Penguins. (Malkin’s 36-point effort was the most prolific post-season since Wayne Gretzky’s 40-point playoff with L.A. in 1993.) Malkin, as he usually does, stepped up his game when Sidney Crosby was slowed by injury.
Long Shot: An unprecedented series of unlikely events would have to occur for veteran stay-at-home defenseman Ron Hainsey to be named playoff MVP. But he deserves a stick tap for helping to hold together the team’s injury-decimated blueline, as he’s gone from the third pairing to 20-plus minutes per game.