After two rounds of play, the playoffs gave us some surprising candidates at the top of the list (Halak, Cammalleri, Pavelski). Now that we're down to 2 teams, the candidates are more of the expected variety for each team. The one unknown factor here, is how do you deal with Philly's goaltending situation? If Leighton rattles off 3 more shutouts, is it conceivable to give the award to a player who missed the first half of the playoffs? Since we're a long way from that playing out, here are the top candidates through the first 3 rounds of action, along with what will have to play out for them to get the prize:
1. Antti Niemi
Prior to the playoffs, there was a general sentiment in the hockey world that goaltending would be the one potential weak link for the Hawks. I don't understand where that was coming from, aside from his rookie status, as Niemi was solid in net throughout the regular season, and had to fight through the politics of Huet's big contract to earn the #1 job. Through 3 rounds of play, the cynics have started to fade. Niemi has not only avoided being the weak link, he has actually been the team's greatest strength. Through 3 rounds of play 16 games, he has a 2.33 GAA, (tying him with Philly Goalie Option 1, Brian Boucher), and placing him 2nd only to Philly Goalie Option 2, Michael Leighton.) His .921 save percentage and 2 shutouts are also quality numbers, rookie or not.
What it will take:
The Hawks are getting scoring up and down their roster, which somewhat diminishes the role of any one of their stellar forwards. If the Hawks go the distance, and he keeps his GAA to under 2.5 for the series, he's the most logical choice for the award.
2. Jonathan Toews
Toews has done it all for Chicago. His solid play in all corners of the rink is only complemented by the fact that he leads all scorers this postseason with 26 points. He also leads all playoff scorers with 5 power play goals. He's still a far cry away from the 36 points that Malkin put up last season, but going back to 1996, the leading scorer in the playoffs before Malkin never topped 27. Toews should join that company by the end of game one with the streak he's had.
What it will take:
Obviously, it will probably require a Chicago win for Toews to be considered. He'll have to keep up a good point per game pace to prove his worth over his goaltender. If Niemi's numbers start to slide and Toews can keep up the pace, Toews should pick up the prize.
3. Mike Richards
With a strong surge in the last few games of round 3, Richards now finds himself alone in second place with 21 points in 17 games. He's been the emotional catalyst for their run this season, and has came through with key goals and assists at every turn.
What it will take:
If the Flyers win the Cup and Richards puts in a couple more points, he should be the man. Even if Briere ultimately outscores him, it will have to be by a number of points to convince the jury that he was more valuable to the Flyers' fortunes than their captain.
4. Chris Pronger
It has become more common recently for the award to go to a defenseman. Three of the last 9 have been awarded to a blueliner. Perhaps the only difference is that for all three (Niedermeyer, Lidstrom, Stevens), those guys were also the captain of their team. Although he doesn't officially wear the 'C' in Philadelphia, nobody can question the leadership he has brought to the Flyers. After all, this isn't the first time Pronger has led an underdog team to the Finals in the past 5 years. In terms of numbers, Pronger leads all defensemen in the playoffs with 4 goals and 14 points. He's also been playing close to 30 minutes a night.
What it will take:
If the Flyers win and Pronger is in on a game winner or two, the case can certainly be made for him over Richards. Also, if the points dry up for Richards, look for the Pronger talk to heat up as the favorite.
While these top 4 will merit most of the attention, here a few other names who could come into play if they step it up in the Finals, (or keep up their pace from Round 3).
5. Patrick Kane
Kane enters the finals as the 3rd highest scorer with 20 points in 16 games. He's tied with Toews in goals, but trails his captain by 6 assists. Beyond the scoresheet, Kane hasn't been as valuable to the overall success of his team as Toews, so he would have to pull off some magic in the final round to win the award.
6. Dustin Byfuglien
Although he currently sits in 28th position among playoff scorers in points, his contributions in terms of goalscoring make him a darkhorse candidate. His 8 goals, including 3 game winners in Round 3, are tops for the Hawks. If he can repeat that magic in Round 4, his name will certainly enter the conversation.
7. Danny Briere
Briere went on a nice, long point streak and currently sits 6th in scoring with 18 points in 17 games. He also enters the finals as the player with the most goals, (second overall only to Cammalleri, who has gone home). Briere will have to outscore Richards by a wide margin to earn the honors.
8. Michael Leighton
Even if Leighton can keep his miraculous playoff numbers rolling, it's a longshot that the award could go to a guy who missed the first round and a half. And it's not as if he rescued the team from poor goaltending, as Brian Boucher was leading all goalies at the time of his untimely injuries. Nonetheless, his play has been so spectacular, that it would be a crime not to include him on the list.
As for predictions, I say that ultimately, the Flyers will put a few more pucks past Niemi than the teams in the West managed to do. Jonathan Toews will continue to step up his play and lead his team to the Cup and the Conn Smythe.