Commentary

Heading into Cup finals, our top candidates for playoff MVP

Updated: May 21, 2008, 3:40 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Four wins separate the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings from hockey immortality, the opportunity to have their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup for all time.

MVP: Have your say!

Who do you think is the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy? We've picked the top candidates for the postseason MVP award. Now, you rank each player and see if your candidate emerges as SportsNation's favorite. Vote!

Who will lead them? Who among them will rise above the fray and be named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the postseason?

Look up and down the respective lineups and you'll see a who's who of some of the game's most talented and accomplished players, making the decision among the most difficult in recent years.

Here's a look at the early candidates as the Cup finals begin Saturday night in Detroit.

Detroit Red Wings

• Henrik Zetterberg: The man does it all: He scores on the power play, scores short-handed (as he did in helping the Wings eliminate Dallas in Game 6 on Monday) and at even strength. He has logged at least 20 minutes a night in all but three of the Wings' 16 postseason games and is tied with Sidney Crosby for the playoff scoring lead with 21 points. Although linemate Pavel Datsyuk may provide more pure scoring talent, Zetterberg is the engine that drives the Red Wings' offense. He is a plus-15 in the postseason, tops in the NHL.

• Niklas Kronwall: The Wings have been waiting for this kind of playoff performance from Kronwall for a number of years. Plagued by injuries early in his career, Kronwall has emerged as a dynamic performer whose abilities extend to all areas of the ice. He leads all defensemen with 12 points, is a plus-7 and is averaging 22:10 in ice time a night. He also brings a great intangible to the Cup finals; he is a powerful hitter in the mold of former Wings great Vladimir Konstantinov. In a series blessed with skill, Kronwall's impressive ability set makes him one to watch.

• Chris Osgood: Seriously. We know, he's Chris Osgood, the Rodney Dangerfield of playoff netminders. But all he's done is win nine straight games during these playoffs and compile a 10-2 record with a league-best 1.60 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. OK, so he's not stopping 40 shots a night, but ask the Dallas Stars if Osgood is any good after they blasted away 16 shots in the third period of Game 6, beating him just once. Osgood will face the most potent offense he's seen this spring, by a wide margin; but if he answers the bell, he'll be full value for Conn Smythe consideration.

The dark horses: It's hard to believe we'd consider perennial Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom an MVP dark horse, but that speaks to the Wings' impressive depth. Throw into the mix Pavel Datsyuk, who has 19 points, as well.

Pittsburgh Penguins

• Sidney Crosby: Well, let's start with the best of the best. If there's anything we've learned about Sidney Crosby this spring, it's that he has an impeccable sense of timing. No one is superlative every single night during the playoffs. But if Crosby has had a couple of off nights, he has shown an uncanny ability to bounce back with crucial performances when the Penguins needed them most. He set up two important goals in the series clincher against the Flyers in Game 5 and set up two goals in the team's first win of the series in Philadelphia, a place the Penguins rarely have enjoyed success. He has 10 multiple-point games and has been dogged in his defensive play. Look for more greatness as the games' importance grows.

• Evgeni Malkin: The Malkin stock may have taken a bit of a hit in the Eastern Conference finals, as he slumped in the middle of the series against the Flyers. Having a touch of the flu might have contributed to Malkin's off nights, but he was good in Game 5 against Philadelphia, when the Penguins routed the Flyers 6-0. If he can find his groove in the Cup finals, he'll again be a big part of any Penguins victory. His ability to create scoring chances from just about anywhere on the ice, and his lethal shot and accurate passing make him the most dangerous player the Red Wings will face this spring. With 19 points, Malkin has become the real deal this spring. Now we'll find out if he's real Conn Smythe material.

• Marc-Andre Fleury: Like his counterpart in Detroit, Fleury is about to face his most difficult test of the playoffs. Hey, that's how it's supposed to be -- it's not supposed to get easier. But if there has been one impressive element of Fleury's play, it has been the goalie's mental toughness. He has grown technically from a year ago, but he also appears to have forged a game without a wobble in it. In Game 1 of the second round, the New York Rangers scored three times in the first period, but Fleury rebounded by making a handful of key stops, and the Penguins won 5-3. In Game 5 against the Rangers, the Penguins blew a 2-0 lead, but Fleury made a game-saving stop on a Brendan Shanahan deflection to send the game to overtime as the Pens advanced to the conference finals. Even in Sunday's 6-0 whitewashing of Philadelphia, Fleury made a great pad stop on Scott Hartnell to preserve a 2-0 lead. In just his second playoff appearance, Fleury is second behind Osgood with a 1.70 GAA and tied for first with Dan Ellis of Nashville with a .938 save percentage.

The dark horses: Marian Hossa seems to be getting better and better as the playoffs roll along. He has nine goals, and his ability to handle the puck down low in the offensive zone will be crucial in this series. Sergei Gonchar has 11 points, second among defensemen, and is averaging 24:25 a night in ice time.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.