LAS VEGAS — With the opportunity to become the first player in 35 years to win three straight Stanley Cups and the first to do it with two different teams, Marc-Andre Fleury could very well officially punch his ticket to the Hockey Hall of Fame if the Vegas Golden Knights can cap one of the most incredible seasons in the history of sports and win the Stanley Cup.
It’s not that he won’t be a Hall of Famer if the Golden Knights come up short, but there will be no disputing his status as one of the game’s all-time greats if he can complete this one. And whether the Golden Knights ultimately win or lose the Stanley Cup, you could certainly make the case that, barring a complete collapse in the final, Fleury has already won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
There has simply not been a player in this year’s post-season tournament who has had more of an effect on his team’s fortunes in a positive way than Fleury, including Alex Ovechkin, who is the other clear frontrunner for the award going into the Stanley Cup final. (Funny sign seen at a bar near the T-Mobile Arena: “Now Serving Ovechkin Special, White Russian, No Cup.” We have ourselves a series.)
The Golden Knights have been giving up almost 34 shots per game, yet sit second in goals-against per game to the Los Angeles Kings, the team the Golden Knights swept in the first round by limiting them to just three goals in four games. Fleury’s overall save percentage of .947 leads the NHL and his 5-on-5 save percentage of .960 is tops among all goalies who have played more than four playoff games in 2018.
But it’s the quality of the saves and the timing of them that have created Fleury’s Conn Smythe fodder. First, Fleury has a .930 save percentage on high-danger shots at 5-on-5, which again leads all goalies who have played more than four games. He also leads in that category in mid-danger shots (.944) and is just behind Braden Holtby in second in stopping low-danger shots (.987).
And just as importantly, Fleury has been the Golden Knights’ best penalty killer. Of teams that have played 10 or more games in these playoffs, Vegas has faced the second-highest number of shorthanded situations per game (3.8). And Fleury’s .908 save percentage is best among goalies who have played more than four games. His .875 save percentage on high-danger shots shorthanded also leads the league and is a major reason why the Golden Knights have been one of the best penalty-killing teams in this year’s playoffs.
So if Fleury can lead the Golden Knights to four more wins, it might be the most lopsided Conn Smythe voting in NHL history. But even if not, Fleury should get major consideration for the award because there is simply no way the Golden Knights would be here without him. Since the award was introduced in 1966, five times the Conn Smythe winner has come from the team losing the Stanley Cup final. (And it should have been six. Chris Pronger was robbed of the award in 2006 when it went to Cam Ward.) Four of those playoff MVPs have gone to goalies, with the most recent being Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003. So the precedent is clearly there for Fleury to take the Conn Smythe regardless of the result of the final.
And one thing that is working more in Fleury’s favor in the playoffs is that the Conn Smythe almost always follows the letter of the law in that it goes to the player who was truly most valuable to his team in the playoffs. Unlike the Hart Trophy that often goes to the best player with less regard to value to the team, the Conn Smythe generally goes to the player who did the most to deliver his team to the Stanley Cup final.
The case for Ovechkin is also a strong one at this point. By the time it’s all said and done, he’ll almost certainly lead the playoffs in goals. If he at least ties Mark Scheifele by scoring two goals in the final, odds are pretty good his Conn Smythe chances will fall by the wayside. He’s running neck-and-neck with teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov for the overall scoring lead in the playoffs and is playing some of the most inspired hockey of his career. He’s playing as physically as he ever has and that’s saying something, leading by example by providing a template for his teammates to follow.
And he would be an outstanding choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy should the Capitals win this series. You can’t make the argument that the Capitals would be in the Stanley Cup final without Ovechkin. Not a chance. But you also can’t make it as vociferously as you can for Fleury when it comes to the Golden Knights.
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