Making the case for Evgeni Malkin as playoff MVP, win or lose

After Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, more than a few commenters were perturbed that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins remained atop the Conn Smythe Watch in our 3 Stars review. The reasons behind that decision are threefold:

1. That the series isn't over yet, and a seventh game is something we've anticipated since the start of the Final.

2. That Crosby and Malkin are likely to finish at the top of the playoff scoring race by a significant margin.

3. That no one on the Detroit Red Wings can claim the level of MVP impact both Malkin and Crosby have had for their team during all four rounds of the postseason.

The talk of either player winning the Conn Smythe has cooled since Game 4, what with the return of Pavel Datsyuk turning the Red Wings into a juggernaut and the Penguins into a collection of petulant cheap-shot artists who allow mile-long passes from goalies with lazy line changes.

But if Detroit wins its second consecutive Cup, could either Crosby or Malkin still win the Conn Smythe for MVP?

Kevin Allen of USA Today, a dean of American hockey writers, explored that notion prior to Game 5:

It has gone to a member of the losing team five times, most recently in 2003 when Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere was awarded the trophy while the New Jersey Devils were celebrating a championship in Continental Airlines Arena.

The only time a non-goaltender has won the Smythe in a losing cause was in 1976, when Philadelphia Flyers winger Reggie Leach scored a record 19 goals.

That's not likely to happen this year if the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup. If a team wins the championship for the second year in a row, someone on that team deserves to be called the best postseason player.

It's up to members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association to elect the playoff MVP, and Allen's last paragraph is probably indicative of their thinking on the award. The way it's worked recently, according to one member, is that a select group of voters from the PHWA -- rather than all the membership in attendance at the game -- have a confab on the Conn and select a winner through some unknown methodology (hopefully there's a séance and a lock of Mr. Smythe's hair involved).

Yet one writer told me today that Malkin could still be considered the "frontrunner" for the award heading into Tuesday night's Game 6. (After getting muzzled in the Finals by the Detroit defense, one imagines Crosby needs a Messier ... er, Messianic performance in Game 6 and potentially Game 7 to overcome Malkin's buzz as a candidate.)

Allen brings up Giguere in 2003 against the New Jersey Devils, and the parallel works to a point with Malkin. Just like with Jersey, there's no clear-cut candidate for the Wings.

Johan Franzen's torrid pace has slowed to the point where Mike Babcock called him out in Pittsburgh. Chris Osgood's case could be better made with a stellar effort in Game 6. The leading candidate might be Henrik Zetterberg, who is the Wings' offensive leader (24 points) and the man credited with slowing Crosby. And since there aren't enough comic relationships between these two franchises, Zetterberg would become the first back-to-back Conn Smythe winner since Mario Lemieux (1990-92).

Malkin isn't the solo act Giguere was back in 2003. Both he and Crosby have had their moments of playoff heroism, picking the team up when the other is bottled up.

It's actually an interesting debate about Conn Smythe philosophy: There's no question that the Penguins wouldn't be in the Final had it not been for Crosby's 21 points in the first two rounds; but Malkin's been the better player in the final two rounds, which some believe should be weighed more heavily. ("Some" in this case meaning "me." That Primanti Bros. sandwich is still making me feel like a person and a half. Bleech.)

Mirtle had this take on the cons for Malkin's Conn candidacy:

For one, Malkin's no defensive powerhouse, and despite scoring all those points, he's only a plus-2 after 22 games. He also doesn't kill penalties and hasn't been getting the most difficult opposition as teams focus on Crosby.

He's also tied with Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo for having been on the ice for the most 5-on-5 goals against of any player, and has a GA/60 of 3.35, second highest on the Pens. Crosby's, in comparison, is just 2.22, while Zetterberg is at 1.39.

Luckily for Malkin, bloggers who pay respect to such nuance aren't the ones voting. Big picture, top headline writers are, and here's the vibe I've gotten:

If Malkin is the reason we have a Game 7, then it's going to be very difficult to deny him the Conn Smythe even if the Penguins lose the Cup; unless Zetterberg or Franzen are, definitively, the reason why the Wings win the Cup in Game 7.

I think Malkin needs one more effort to really put the screws to writers like Allen who believe the winning team deserves the MVP. If this series ends in six, my hunch is that Zetterberg wins the Conn based on his numbers and his shutting down of Crosby.

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