TAMPA, Fla. – They’ve been dominating tournaments together for over a decade.
So when the Tampa Bay Lightning raced home Tuesday morning to beat Hurricane Elsa and prepare for another shot at closing out the Stanley Cup, it was no big surprise that Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy were considered Conn Smythe’s co-favorites. while they did it. that.
Except: the two men, born 403 days old and almost 3,000 kilometers apart in Russia, are not always front and center of a team with more stars than anyone else. They finished third (Kucherov) and fourth (Vasilevskiy) in voting for MVP of the playoffs last year despite equally stellar individual runs.
Recognition comes and goes even if performance remains stable.
When they were teammates for the first time, Kucherov led the 2011 U-18 world championship in scoring, while Vasilevskiy posted the best save percentage. Russia claimed bronze in the event, beating Canada 6-4 after losing to Sweden in the semi-finals, and Kucherov was recognized as the best striker of the tournament.
“He was always special, always super skilled,” Vasilevskiy said. “It’s funny, a lot of the pundits and the fake coaches didn’t really believe in him and they say he will never be a big star and all that. But in the end, he is a great player and one of the best in the NHL. He is super smart, super skilled and hardworking. Never satisfied.
“Even after scoring like four or five points, he’s never satisfied, he wants to score six or seven points a game. Just a classic cake. Always trying to improve and striving in play and practice.
“That’s what makes him the best in the world.”
Whether they play one, two or three more games in this Stanley Cup final, he’s pretty sure to lead the playoff scoring race for the second year in a row. Kucherov has twice as many points as Nick Suzuki, Montreal’s top points producer, and is nine ahead of his teammate Brayden Point going into Wednesday’s game.
Vasilevskiy has been equally dominant with shutouts in the three games that secured the Tampa series thus far. He has allowed six fewer goals this postseason than his Canadiens counterpart Carey Price, and has posted a league-best .935 save percentage in the process.
He is widely considered the best goalkeeper in the NHL at this stage and seemed destined for greatness since before Tampa selected him with the 19th overall pick in 2012.
“His work ethic is on a different level. Their level of competition is as high as it can be, ”said Kucherov about Vasilevskiy. “He works all the time on his ability, he is always first in the gym. Always there before and after practice, working on something that will make it better. And it doesn’t surprise me.
“I remember it when I was 16 years old. He was always the guy who cares about the game and wants to be better and wants to be No. 1.
“And, as we can see, it is.”
If the Lightning close this series in front of their home crowd at Amalie Arena, one of those men will almost certainly become the third Russian to claim the Conn Smythe, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009 and Alex Ovechkin in 2018.
It would help illustrate what makes this team special: Victor Hedman narrowly edged Point for the honor last year. And here we are with two different men and lifelong friends, dividing the votes now.
Without warning, Lightning’s trainer Jon Cooper threw Ryan McDonagh’s name into the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation Tuesday morning. He acknowledged that it will not be an easy decision for select members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, who must secure their top three picks by 10 minutes into the third period in every possible elimination game.
“Last year it could have been Vasy, Pointer, Kuch, Hedman, a bunch of guys. And this year I feel the same, ”Cooper said. “Everyone has contributed. Vasy has been outstanding. You can get our ‘D body’ guys up and down, the guys who have made an impact and the forwards. Kuch by the way, oh god, he didn’t even play in the regular season and the performance he’s doing in the playoffs. Pointer and his scoring streak.
“And then you look at anyone in the [Yanni] Gourde line. The guys have stepped up and had their moments, but you can’t win without it. “
With the Lightning within a second straight championship win, here’s a closer look at Conn Smythe’s credentials of the top contenders:
There’s the league-leading 32 points and the league-leading 24 assists, but there’s also historical significance to this offensive explosion. Kucherov’s points-per-game rate of 1.45 would rank eighth among players with at least 20 games played in a postseason and the others to do so are all Hall of Famers: Wayne Gretzky, twice; Mario Lemieux; Doug Gilmour; Joe Sakic; Brian Leetch; and Malkin.
You have a 15-7 record, a .935 save percentage and four shutouts, three of them in series-assuring games, which strengthens the narrative. He has also faced more shots than any other goalkeeper this postseason (677 to Price’s 643) and has been rock solid as he played every minute during Tampa’s playoff run for the second year in a row. Another shutout for the cup could tip the vote in his direction.
Production has dried up during the Stanley Cup final, but has had a dynamite tiebreaker. Point’s nine-goal streak came within one of equaling Reggie Leach’s NHL record, and his 14 total goals are six more than anyone has scored. Cooper credited Point for sparking this playoff run with the two late goals he had in Game 1 against Florida to jumpstart the Lightning with a thrilling comeback victory.
It was a more low-key run for last year’s winner Conn Smythe, who has once again played more minutes than any of his teammates during these playoffs. Hedman had a hot stick with 10 goals inside the bubble last year and this time he’s slashing an impressive .82 points per game. He’s a heartbeat player for Lightning. Another Cup will help solidify his claim to be the best defender of this generation.
Admittedly, it’s the longest of the long shots, but after getting a little sparkle from Cooper, why not? This has been a reverse playoff for McDonagh, who is second to Hedman in average time on ice (22:48) for the Lightning and has seen more starts in the defensive zone than any of the players on the blue line of the team. Despite that, Tampa has a 26-12 goal advantage during its 5-on-5 minutes.