With the NHL's 2011 conference finals now under way, here's Spector's look at eight candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
For years, the San Jose Sharks center has been dogged by the tag “playoff underachiever,” but his performance in the 2011 playoffs has been outstanding. He enters the week tied for both the team scoring lead (13 points) and game-winning goals (two), plus he leads the Sharks in power-play assists (five). If Thornton continues his strong play throughout the conference finals, the Sharks stand a great chance of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It's a tribute to the Vancouver Canucks forward's overall game that he was touted as his team's playoff MVP midway through the second round without having scored a goal. Once he regained his scoring touch, Kesler became a factor at both ends of the rink. He led the Canucks to victory over the Nashville Predators in the conference semis and has assumed the NHL playoff scoring lead.
The Boston Bruins claim they wouldn't have made it to the conference fnals without their Vezina-nominated goaltender. Entering this week, Thomas has the third-best goals-against average (2.19) and save percentage (.932) of all playoff goaltenders. Despite a shaky start in the opening game of the conference finals against Tampa Bay, Thomas should regain his stellar form as this series progresses.
Before being knocked out of the lineup by a concussion in Game 4 of the Boston Bruins' second-round sweep of Philadelphia, the center was among this spring's best players. He leads the Bruins in assists (10), points (12) and hits (30). The Bruins' hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals will improve if Bergeron can return to action and pick up where he left off.
Martin St. Louis
The Tampa Bay Lightning wing, a former Hart Trophy winner, has been the heartbeat of his team throughout this year's playoffs, leading the club in postseason scoring. He's so motivated to play, he endured a double root canal after taking a stick in the mouth early in the first round and returned to play the next game. St. Louis' leadership and experience has been vital to the Lightning's success.
One of the most-respected players on the San Jose Sharks roster, the wing has stepped up his game in this year's playoffs. He's tied for the team lead in scoring (13 points), and plus-minus (plus-6) and has the second-most hits (32). His physical play and outspoken leadership has been invaluable to the Sharks' march to the Western Conference finals.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the 41-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender became the oldest goalie in NHL history to win eight consecutive playoffs games. He entered this week leading this year's postseason goalies in wins (9), goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.941). The Lightning's march to the conference finals was a team effort, but Roloson was the main reason they have reached this point.
He has only five points in 14 playoff games this spring, but the Vancouver Canucks defenseman's contributions have been more notable in other areas. He has been a pillar of strength on the Canucks' blue line, with the second-most hits, second-best plus-minus and the fourth-most blocked shots on the team. Bieksa has been an invaluable team leader for Vancouver in this year's postseason, as well as their best all-around defenseman.