Washington’s decisive 6-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night gave the Capitals a three-games-to-one series lead in the Stanley Cup finals, a commanding advantage that has seen all but one of 33 teams end up as champions.
Since the Conn Smythe Trophy was first awarded to the player judged most valuable to his team in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1965, all but five recipients have been a member of the team that won the Stanley Cup, and no player has ever won it without playing in the finals. Obviously that trend won’t change this year, nor will we see the winner come from the losing team. That’s unfortunate news for Vegas netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who was the front-runner for the award heading into the Cup finals. Instead, look for Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Braden Holtby to emerge as the most valuable player of the postseason.
Kuznetsov has become a focal point of the Capitals’ offense. The 26-year-old Russian leads all skaters with 31 postseason points, a Capitals franchise record, including four assists in Game 4 on Monday night, making him only the fourth NHL player to record that many in a Stanley Cup finals game and the first since Joe Sakic in 1996. Plus, more than half of his team-high 19 assists (11) have been the primary pass leading to a goal.
But Kuznetsov is more than just a facilitator. His 29 high-danger scoring chances, shot attempts in the slot or the crease, are the second most on the team after Ovechkin, and he has increased his shots per game from 2.4 during the regular season to 3.8 in the playoffs. More shots on net give Washington more opportunities to score, and right now Kuznetsov is a leader on all fronts.
Plus, Kuznetsov also has the highest game score on the team (28.6), a statistic created by Bill James for baseball that has since been adapted for hockey, incorporating much of what we see on the ice — goals, shot attempts, faceoffs and penalties — into a single number.
The Capitals’ captain has stepped up big during this playoff run. The Great Eight has more goals, shot attempts and scoring chances — including those from high-danger areas — than Kuznetsov, in addition to defensive play that has dispelled any notions he is lazy at the other end of the ice.
And while Kuznetsov may have more points, Ovechkin has more goals. Ovechkin’s game score (27.8) is also only a few ticks behind Kuznetsov’s for the team lead.
Washington wouldn’t have made this deep of a playoff run without a resurgence from Holtby. The former Vezina Trophy winner was benched early in the playoffs in favor of Philipp Grubauer but has been sparkling since his return as the starter in Game 3 of the first-round series against Columbus.
Holtby has posted a .923 save percentage, which includes a .901 save rate against high-danger chances at even strength. His high-danger save rate on the penalty kill is .854, higher than the league average of .832. And he’s clearly outplaying Fleury in the Stanley Cup finals.
My guess is Ovechkin is going to be the popular choice among the voters, but Kuznetsov is more deserving of the award, even if the margin is slim. His overall improvement in shot generation, league-leading point totals and higher game score all make for a compelling case to have Kuznetsov named the most valuable player of the playoffs.
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