After their 2-0 Game 7 win over the New York Rangers Friday in Manhattan, the Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since they won the only championship trophy in franchise history in 2004. And they're no accident or Cinderella story. They've found success thanks to a multi-pronged attack on offense that has delivered over and over, and that's made their mark in the playoff scoring race. Indeed, that Lightning players take up three of the top six slots among all playoff scorers (including forwards Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, who sit first and tied for second respectively) and five of the top 12 spots in the scoring race is an accurate reflection of how potent Tampa Bay's scorers have been through three rounds.
So, if the Cup were decided in a one-game, winner-take all Final today and Tampa Bay were the victor, which Bolts player would take home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP? Here's one observer's ranking of the top three candidates:
3. Nikita Kucherov. The 21-year-old Russian right winger has been a menace for the opposing goalie since late in the first round, when he posted three assists in Game 6 against Detroit and subsequently posted 15 points in his next 14 games. Three of Kucherov's nine goals were game-winners, and his minutes have been on the rise since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, moving from 16:57 of ice time in that game to 19:20 in Game 7. Not bad for a guy who played all of two NHL playoff games prior to this year.
2. Ben Bishop. Tampa Bay's starting goaltender has been anything but perfect in the 2015 post-season. He's posted a sub-.900 save percentage in six of 20 playoff games thus far, and he was pulled one game in each of the past two rounds. However, let's give Bishop some credit here: he's got three playoff shutouts to lead all NHL goalies, he's clearly able to shake off wobbly performances, and he just knocked off two of the planet's best netminders in Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price. You certainly can't call Bishop a passenger in Tampa's wins – as often as not, they've needed him to keep them in a game long enough for someone to make a difference at the other end of the ice.
1. Tyler Johnson. The astonishing ascendance of Johnson continued throughout the post-season, with the 24-year-old never going more than two games without registering a point, and putting up seven multi-point games (including three against the Rangers) in the 20 he's played to this stage. Johnson also leads all playoff performers with four game-winners. Unless he disappears in the Final, or some other Bolts player sets himself apart from the rest, Johnson is going to be a frontrunner for the Conn Smythe. After only two full NHL seasons and four playoff games prior to this year, Johnson has become a true difference-maker and the drink-stirring straw every player hopes to be.