Conn Smythe Watch: Who dares prevent Phil Kessel from winning MVP?

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Conn Smythe Watch: Who dares prevent Phil Kessel from winning MVP?
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SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Pittsburgh Penguins are one win away from the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 win in Game 4 of the Final against the San Jose Sharks. 

This is not meant to be hubris or chicken-counting or placing a cart before a horse. But if the Penguins close this thing out in the next three games, who gets the Conn Smythe Trophy?

Phil Kessel. Right?

With two assists in Game 4, Phil now has 21 points in 22 games. That’s best on the Penguins, as are his 10 playoff goals. He’s powered the team’s best line, the fabled HBK Line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, and has played a significant role in a few of their victories. He has a six-game point streak to his credit. He has a goal and two assists thus far in the Final.

And, let’s face it: This is the happy ending we want. The schlubby guy with the underachiever label rising up and winning the MVP. The trophy he raises above his head acting as a shiny, silver middle finger to his dogged critics in Toronto and elsewhere.

There are 18 voters for the Conn Smythe, whose awarding is coordinated by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. By no means did I canvas all of them, but the impression I get from talking to a few of them:

Phil Kessel might not win the Conn Smythe.

The other most significant contender is goalie Matt Murray, and it’s fairly easy to understand why: He’s a rookie that’s posted a 2.09 goal-against average, a .925 save percentage and 14 wins in 19 games. He has a sub-2.00 goal-against average in the Stanley Cup Final. His record and stats after games in which the Penguins were defeated are stellar: 5-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average. And, remember: He lost his job in the Eastern Conference Final, and then returned to rally the Penguins to the championship.

What might hurt Murray is that, despite his confident play, he could be seen as a product of the stifling defense being played in front of him in the Stanley Cup Final. But that’s a bit of recency bias – check out the heavy lifting he did in the Washington Capitals series.

Oh, yeah: He’s also out-dueled Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby, too.

So I think Murray is right there with Kessel for the Conn Smythe, but don’t sleep on the support Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are going to get.

Crosby has impressive numbers – 17 points in 22 games – and some rather big moments, like the overtime goal in the Lightning series and orchestrating the overtime winner against the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final. He’s going to get that “intangible leadership” support too, even if his numbers aren’t going to be where, say, Jonathan Toews’s were for the Conn Smythe in 2010.

Letang is skating 28:50 per night and has 13 points in 21 games. But with the Penguins’ blue line depleted, Letang’s work has been exemplary. He has a 54.88 Corsi rating, facing the toughest on-ice competition every night.

(Nick Bonino might also get some love, but it’s hard to believe he’ll get enough support to supplant Kessel or Crosby.)

My heart wants Phil Kessel, of course, because there’s really no greater Internet-melting moment to cap a Penguins’ championship than his winning MVP. Outside of him filling the Stanley Cup with Nathan’s franks, maybe.

And perhaps the voters go for the narrative. But it’s just as probable that Murray gets the Conn Smythe for being the backbone of a championship team as a rookie -- a compelling story in its own right, with the numbers to back it up. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

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