Conn Smythe Watch: We need to talk about Jake Guentzel

The Pittsburgh Penguins have opened up the Stanley Cup Final with two straight wins over the Nashville Predators, and the dynamics for the Conn Smythe Trophy race for playoff MVP have shifted. This is thanks, in part, to the burgeoning love affair between an outstanding rookie and the media that really enjoys writing about him.

Here’s how we see the field. Please keep in mind that for the Conn Smythe Watch, we weigh candidates more if their teams appear headed for advancement. Also keep in mind that we’re ranking these players with the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s potential voting favorites in mind. The previous ranking for the players is listed as well.

10 – Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins (10)

Sigh. What could have been. Fleury backstopped the Penguins for two rounds after Matt Murray was injured, and posted a .924 save percentage overall in his 15 games. The feel-good story that hit the final chapter too quickly.

9 – P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators (NR)

The man guaranteed victory in Game 3! Everyone’s a sucker for that Messier stuff. (He also has 11 points in 18 games and has played brilliantly in a shutdown role for Nashville.)

8 – Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators (NR)

He had a goal in Game 1, giving him five goals and seven assists in 18 games. Not likely to win, but props to the best beard in the playoffs.

7 – Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins (8)

Last season’s Conn Smythe darling (who was left at the altar) has 20 points in 21 games, which is one more than Jake Guentzel. He had six points in seven games in the Ottawa series, and has an assist in the Final. In the conversation, but not quite there.

6 – Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins (NR) 

He’s obviously not going to win it because of his body of work, but credit where it’s due: Since taking over for Fleury, who took over for him, Murray is 5-1 with a .943 save percentage and a 1.54 goals-against average. He’s been a steadying, unshakable presence back there in front of a diminished defense.

5 – Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators (5) 

With eight goals and seven assists, he still leads the Predators offensively, including a goal and an assist in the conference final elimination game that was part of a seven-game points streak. But he’s been shut out in the first two games of the Final, and one has to wonder if the loss of Ryan Johansen to injury might be finally catching up with Forsberg’s production.

4 – Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins (NR)

OK, so let’s get into it.

Guentzel has 12 goals in the postseason, more than any other player and the only player to be in double-digits. Five of them have been game-winning goals. Seven of them have come in the third period or later, including an overtime game-winner against the Columbus Blue Jackets back in round one. He has recency-bias momentum with three goals in the Stanley Cup Final. He has a chance to break the rookie goal-scoring record for the playoffs, set by Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars in 1981 with 15 goals. And it’s very fun to hear Doc Emrick shout his name.

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, in a Conn Smythe column that somehow manages not to mention the name “Evgeni Malkin,” makes the case for the Penguins rookie:

You could argue that without Guentzel’s scoring, both in terms of quantity and quality, the Penguins are not where the are today. He has scored every important goal of the Stanley Cup final and has led the charge for a quick-strike team that, despite being outshot 64-39 in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, finds itself with an almost inexplicable 2-0 lead.

The counterargument, of course, is that Guentzel had two assists in seven games against the Ottawa Senators and was on the precipice of a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Last time we checked they awarded the Conn Smythe based on all four rounds.

Also, he’s an American and, well, ask Phil Kessel how that goes.

3 – Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators (1)

Look, the Final has been disastrous for Rinne. He has a .788 save percentage at even-strength (7 goals on 33 shots) and a .777 save percentage overall in two losses. But you can’t ignore the work he did in getting them to the Final, and if they turn this around, it may still be Rinne that does it.

2 – Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (6)

This is, in theory, a two-man race right now. So far Malkin has both the playoff points lead (26 in 21 games) and the recency bias, with goals in his first two Stanley Cup Final games and six points in his last five games. But he lacks the big moments that Crosby’s had, which brings us to…

1 – Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (2)

Again, this is neck-and-neck with Malkin. He has 22 points in 20 games, scoring in 16 of those 20 games. The main argument for Sid is that he was prominent in the Penguins’ most critical games in ways Malkin wasn’t: Crosby set up goals on both of their Game 7s, while Malkin was scoreless; Crosby had a goal and an assist in that critical Game 4 in Ottawa, and Malkin was shut out. He also set up five of Guentzel’s 12 goals.

Ask the Penguins, and to a man they’ll put Crosby over as the guy they’re taking their cues from on and off the ice.

By the numbers, it’s Geno. By the impact, it’s Sid. For the storytellers, it’s Guentzel.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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