National Post (Latest Edition)

Conn Smythe Trophy race just became more intriguing

Stars victory puts Pavelski, Heiskanen back in conversati­on

- Michael Traikos

Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov

are still the top choices ... But the longer this series goes, the

better the odds are that someone like Joe Pavelski or Miro

Heiskanen will be crowned MVP . — Michael Traikos

When Tampa Bay was one win away from winning the Stanley Cup, the list of potential Conn Smythe Trophy candidates was limited to just one team. But with Dallas forcing a Game 6 on Saturday night, the field suddenly became more wide open.

Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are still the top choices — especially if the Lightning close things out on Monday night. But the longer this series goes, the better the odds are that someone like Joe Pavelski or Miro Heiskanen will be crowned MVP.

Here’s a look at the favourites.

Victor Hedman

The last time a defenceman won the Conn Smythe

Trophy was in 2015, when Chicago’s Duncan Keith averaged more than 31 minutes of ice time. Hedman, who is averaging almost 27 minutes, hasn’t been on the ice as much as Keith. But his impact is just as important to Tampa Bay’s success.

The 2018 Norris Trophy winner is one of the most well-rounded defencemen in the NHL. What we may not have known was just how offensivel­y skilled he can be. Hedman only scored 11 goals in the regular season. He has 10 in the playoffs — a feat only Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch have matched — mostly because he’s fired 80 shots on net. Only Kucherov has shot the puck more for Tampa Bay.

Six of Hedman’s goals came in even-strength situations, where he is averaging more than 26 minutes per game. And three of them were game-winners.

Hedman also has 21 points in 24 games, a plus-13 rating and 45 blocked shots.

Joe Pavelski

In his 13 years spent with San Jose, Pavelski made one trip to the final — and lost. So it’s not surprising that the 36- year- old has added a level of desperatio­n to his game in this year’s post- season.

Pavelski, who reportedly had an offer to sign with Tampa Bay, is certainly playing like this could be his last trip to the final. He didn’t have the greatest season with Dallas this year, scoring just 14 goals and finishing with 31 points in 67 games. But the playoffs have brought out a different side of the veteran. His 61 career playoff goals are the most among U. S.-born players.

In this year’s playoffs, Pavelski has 19 points and a team- leading 13 goals in 26 games. None was bigger than the game- tying goal he scored with less than seven minutes remaining in Game 5, which forced overtime and kept the Stars’ season alive.

With Dallas’ top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov still yet to score a goal in the final, the team may need more out of the former captain if it hopes to force a Game 7.

Brayden Point

What more can you say

about Point?

With Steven Stamkos out for the playoffs after briefly appearing in Game 3 of the final, the 24- year- old has stepped up.

It’s not just that he’s scoring — and with a playoff-leading 13 goals in 22 games, Point is certainly producing at a Leon Draisaitl-like level. But it’s how and when he’s producing that has really stood out.

Kucherov leads the Lightning with 33 points. But Point, who has 32, is the one driving the offence.

When Tampa needs a big goal or a big play, he has come up time and time again. Point was the one who ended the five- overtime marathon against Columbus in the first round and who scored again in overtime of Game 5 to eliminate the Blue Jackets. He is the one who also assisted on the overtime goal that clinched a second-round series against the Bruins.

Miro Heiskanen

These playoffs have been a coming- out party for Dallas’ young defenceman, who has Norris Trophy winner written all over his game.

It’s easy to forget that Heiskanen is only 21 years old and that this is only his second year in the league. He isn’t playing like someone who has yet to reach the 200-game mark.

Heiskanen is Dallas’ horse on the back end. And we say back end loosely. Heiskanen plays the type of game that Erik Karlsson made popular. He’s a rover more than he is a defenceman, who uses his effortless stride to join — or in many cases, lead — the rush.

On a team where the forwards haven’t been contributi­ng as much as they should be, Heiskanen has chipped in six goals — only Pavelski has scored more — and leads the Stars with 26 points in 26 games. He also has logged nearly 26 minutes

in ice time, while recording a plus-8 rating.

Nikita Kucherov

You can go up and down Tampa Bay’s roster and find players who blamed themselves for last year’s firstround sweep against Columbus. But Kucherov, who was the leading scorer and Hart Trophy winner in 2019, probably felt the loss more than anyone.

For one, he didn’t score a goal and managed just two assists in the series. But he also earned a one- game suspension after delivering a hit from behind in Game 2.

To say that Kucherov has learned from that experience and made amends would be an understate­ment.

With seven goals and a playoff- leading 33 points in 24 games, Kucherov is producing at a level that is a bit ridiculous.

 ?? Perry Nelson / USA TODAY Sports ?? Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman, right, and Stars forward Joe Pavelski are two of
the favourites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP in this year’s NHL playoffs.
Perry Nelson / USA TODAY Sports Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman, right, and Stars forward Joe Pavelski are two of the favourites to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP in this year’s NHL playoffs.
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