Malkin, Rinne among contenders in wide-open Conn Smythe race

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette was so concerned that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would take criticism to heart that he wanted everyone to stop talking about it.

No shots for the Pittsburgh Penguins' top stars in Game 3 led to one of Crosby's best games of the playoffs in Game 4, even though the Predators won it to even the Stanley Cup Final.

Going into Game 5 on Thursday night, Crosby and Malkin are still in the wide-open Conn Smythe Trophy race - along with some less-familiar faces.

Malkin has the most points in the playoffs with 26 and Crosby is second with 24. Penguins teammate Jake Guentzel has a playoff-best 13 goals, while Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has been their backbone, according to Laviolette. Forward Filip Forsberg is Nashville's leading scorer.

Crosby won the Conn Smythe a year ago and Malkin did when the Penguins lifted the Cup in 2009. It wouldn't surprise anyone if either had a repeat performance.

''My sense of being around Geno is that his priorities are just trying to help this team win and trying to accomplish our team goals, which ultimately is a Stanley Cup,'' Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said of Malkin. ''I think these guys are ultimately driven to win championships. I think that's their No. 1 priority.''

Rinne was a playoff MVP favorite going into the Cup Final, but allowing eight goals in the first two games put the Predators in a hole. He held Pittsburgh to a single goal in the next two games, a bounce-back effort that would likely back his case if Nashville wins the first Cup in franchise history.

''It's a rollercoaster, it's an emotional ride,'' said Rinne, who has a 1.88 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 20 postseason starts this year. ''The first two games, we did a lot of good things. Personally wasn't really happy with my game. ... It's a game of confidence being a goalie.''

There's no shortage of confidence for Penguins goalies Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, but they've split the duties almost evenly so far in the playoffs. The NHL said Murray and Fleury cannot be voted as a single entity for the Conn Smythe, though they could share it if the votes end up an even split.

Unlikely, especially considering that if Pittsburgh wins its second consecutive championship it will be thanks in large part to Guentzel, who is one goal away from tying Dino Ciccarelli's rookie record that has stood for 36 years.

''He's certainly made his influence on the playoffs for our team in such a positive way,'' Sullivan said. ''He's a great offensive player. He's got good instincts. We can play him with anybody. He just has the ability to make plays around him better. He's got a nose for the net. He can score goals.''

So can Forsberg, who leads the Predators with nine. Laviolette is more concerned with the gifted Swede's all-around game than just his scoring ability.

''Just with opportunity, he's really shown himself as somebody who wants to be the guy on the front of the rope pulling it,'' Laviolette said. ''I think with the opportunities he's gotten through the regular season and through increased playoff experiences, he's really shown he is a leader on this team. He's a difference-maker on this team, somebody we count on.''

The Predators' other top candidates are defenseman Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, who have combined for 17 points in 20 games. They've also been chiefly responsible for defending Crosby, which could be the difference between a parade on Lower Broadway and another one in the Steel City.

Josi in particular has a shot as he plays a team-high 26 minutes per game and has a complete game.

''His offensive skills, I think they stand out more sometimes because he's gifted offensively,'' Laviolette said. ''His defense is equally as good for me.''

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: http://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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