Our top candidates (so far) for playoff MVP
We're down to the final four after a grueling 82-game schedule and two rounds of furious playoff action.
MVP: Have your say
Who do you think is the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy? We've picked 12 top candidates for the postseason MVP award. Now, you rank each player and see if your candidate emerges as SportsNation's favorite. Vote!
Detroit and Dallas will tangle in the Western Conference finals, while cross-state rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh likely will live up to the Flyers' playoff slogan, "Vengeance Now."
As the conference finals begin in Detroit on Thursday and Pittsburgh on Friday, our attention turns to those players whose performances have been stellar, superlative, award-winning -- Conn Smythe Trophy-worthy.
Whom do we like as the playoff MVP? Here's a look at three early candidates from each team:
• Hard to look further than "The Mule," Johan Franzen. The unheralded Swedish goal-scoring monster leads all postseason scorers with 11 goals and is tied for second with 14 points. His three game winners are what would put him at the top of this early ballot. Scoring in bunches is one thing; scoring when it counts is another.
• Franzen's exploits may have overshadowed another dynamite performance in the Motor City. Niklas Kronwall is enjoying his finest injury-free stretch since coming into the NHL as the 29th pick in the 2000 draft. It's Kronwall who enters the conference finals as the leading point-getter among defensemen in Detroit, not Nicklas Lidstrom (Kronwall has eight points, Lidstrom seven). The hard-hitting defender also is blocking shots, taking out opposing players and generally looking like a stud on the Detroit blue line.
• How about the new kid in goal, Chris Osgood? OK, he's not so new and not so young. (He wore the winged wheel a decade ago when the Red Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998.) Still, Osgood took over for a shaky Dominik Hasek in Game 4 of the first round against Nashville as the Wings looked like they were coming apart at the seams. Osgood has since won six straight games and leads the playoffs with a 1.52 goals-against average.
• They don't call him Captain Dallas (it doesn't really ring, anyway), but Brenden Morrow has been the driving force in the Stars' first two rounds. Morrow twice scored overtime winners against San Jose and was a force in Game 6. At both ends of the ice and everywhere in between, Morrow has been the Stars' clear leader.
• You don't hear so much talk about how Marty Turco can't win in the playoffs anymore, do you? Turning in a 61-save performance in eliminating San Jose on Sunday night helps to quiet that kind of talk. Of course, Turco's been terrific all spring with a 1.73 GAA and .929 save percentage that voters will be taking note of come Conn Smythe time.
• No doubt Sergei Zubov has given the Stars a terrific boost with his return early in the San Jose series. But the real bulldog on the blue line has been Stephane Robidas, who is tied for the lead among NHL defensemen with eight postseason points. He also took a puck to the face and was back in a flash (wearing a cage), proving he's no shrinking violet. He is averaging 27:06 a night in ice time, the most of all remaining defensemen.
• You know you've got a pretty special talent when you can have a couple of off games as Sidney Crosby did against New York and still be one point off the playoff scoring lead with 14 points in nine games. Crosby leads all players with 12 assists, and he's been in on most of the crucial goals scored by the Penguins this spring. Plus, he's the lightning rod for opposing teams, both in terms of off-ice gamesmanship and on-ice tactics.
• If folks are waiting for the bubble to burst on Marc-Andre Fleury in the Penguins' net, they'd better stop holding their breaths. Fleury has displayed terrific maturity in just his second playoff appearance. He leads the league with a .938 save percentage, has a 1.76 GAA and has pitched two shutouts. He has yet to blink when the Penguins have needed a big stop.
• It seems that with almost every game he plays, Evgeni Malkin gets noticeably more confident, more sure of himself. Not bad when every game means just a little more pressure in the playoffs. Starting with his play during the regular season after Crosby was out with a high-ankle sprain, Malkin has shown he is a world-class talent. Now, he's showing he's a world-class playoff performer with 14 points in nine games. He also chipped in two game winners against New York.
• The guy waits his whole career, until he's 30 years old, to play in his first playoff games, and all Martin Biron does is stand on his head and take his team to the conference finals. What a nice story for one of the nice guys in the business. When it looked like Washington would roll over the Flyers in Game 7 in Washington, Biron was a rock. When it looked like Montreal was going to run the Flyers out of the second round, Biron was even better. What's next, hamstringing the march of the Penguins?
• Daniel Briere did see his production drop off a little against Montreal, recording just three points in five games after collecting 11 points in seven games during the first round against Washington. But he's been terrific all postseason and is one of the leaders on a young Philadelphia team that still remembers what it was like to finish last in the NHL just a year ago.
• Maybe R.J. Umberger won't score eight goals in this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. But after his virtuoso performance against Montreal that helped the Flyers to a surprise berth in the Eastern Conference finals, anything is possible. If he keeps scoring not just piles of goals but crucial ones, like the two game winners he's netted this spring, voters will have to take notice.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.