Columnists, Ice Hockey, Sports

Off the Post: The race toward the Conn Smythe Trophy

One of the great aspects of the National Hockey League is how it chooses the Stanley Cup Finals’ most valuable player. Actually, if we are being technical, no such award exists. 

In professional baseball, basketball and football, a player is awarded for being the most valuable in a championship-winning series. The World Series, NBA Finals and Super Bowl MVPs are judged only on their performance in the final round of the postseason. 

That is not the case in professional hockey. 

Instead, the Conn Smythe Trophy is bestowed upon the player who best performed throughout the entire postseason. In normal circumstances, this player was productive from the middle of April, when this grueling marathon known as the NHL playoffs begins, to the middle of June, when a victor raises the Stanley Cup. 

This year’s Conn Smythe winner will certainly claim the award in unusual circumstances. There will be no roaring crowd or massive eruption of boos. That said, the honor of lifting the Conn Smythe trophy will be as real as ever. 

There are many worthy candidates who could skate away with this trophy. 

Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been incredible in the bubble with 26 points in 19 games, including two overtime scores. 

Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen has corralled 23 points in 23 games while helping stabilize Dallas’ backend. 

However, two candidates are really standing out. They could not have had more different hockey careers up until this point. One is a fantastic player dominating the playoffs while the other is a journeyman playing absolutely out of his mind. 

Victor Hedman has been Tampa Bay’s cornerstone defenseman since debuting in the 2009-2010 season. At just 19 years old, the Swedish skater averaged 20:51 time on ice per contest. 

One of the main reasons the Lightning were swept aside by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round last spring was Hedman not being able to finish the series. 

During these playoffs, he has done the unthinkable: he has actually raised his game to yet another level. Throughout the postseason, Hedman has been an absolute force offensively and defensively. 

In 21 games, Hedman accumulated 17 points, including an impressive nine lamp lighters. While he is certainly an elite passer with a bombing left-handed shot, Hedman is even more intimidating when he does not have the puck. 

He has been able to stymie incredibly skilled players in these playoffs. He was a massive factor in Tampa Bay avenging their previous postseason loss against Columbus. He was then an absolute horse against the Boston Bruins. 

Hedman did not allow David Pastrnak, the NHL’s leading goal scorer, to breathe, let alone create space. And against an up-and-coming, well-coached New York Islanders team, Hedman’s calming presence stifled any New York plans of a series comeback. 

His plus-minus this postseason has been an amazing plus 17. To put it in plain English, when Hedman is on the ice, Tampa Bay scores and their opponent does not. It’s that simple. 

The other man having a dynamite postseason is Dallas’s goaltender, Anton Khudobin. Unlike Hedman, Khudobin is not a generational talent — in fact, far from it. 

He first debuted in the NHL in 2010 for the Minnesota Wild, but only played in seven games during his first three seasons in the league. He has bounced around throughout his career as a solid backup goaltender, playing for five organizations in 11 seasons. Boston fans remember his very solid work over two stints as the Bruins’ second-string goalie.  

The 2020 regular season brought great success for Khudobin, as he put up a league-leading 0.930 save percentage in 30 games. However, Khudobin has been thrust into the role of the Stars’ primary goaltender. Previous starter Ben Bishop has not gotten into a game since Aug. 31.

Throughout the playoffs, Khudobin has been improving his play in the net. After taking care of the Calgary Flames in six games, the high-flying, electric Colorado Avalanche were waiting. 

In Game 7, where Colorado peppered Khudobin for 44 shots, he was able to fight for an overtime win after allowing four scores. While his numbers were not spectacular, he more than held his own against an insanely talented Colorado attack. 

Against the Vegas Golden Knights, with a chance to fight for the Stanley Cup, Khudobin played the best hockey of his life. On 161 Vegas shots over five games, only eight found the back of the net. He finished the series with a 0.950 save percentage and one shutout. 

Overall in the playoffs, Khudobin has delivered a goals-against-average of 2.57 and a save percentage of 0.922. These are very good numbers, but even better when considering he is a backup who has gone against four elite offensive teams. 

The Stanley Cup Finals are evened up at a game apiece. Khudobin robbed the Lightning of a Game 1 win by stoning 35 of Tampa Bay’s 36 shots. Hedman led Tampa Bay into the win column in Game 2 by racking up two assists in 21:31 on the ice. 

With the series tied, it will be fascinating to see which of these players rises to the occasion for the rest of the way. 

Whoever delivers over the next seven days will forever have their name etched into hockey history. 

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