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Capitals' contenders for Conn Smythe Trophy debated by NHL.com

Tight race between Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Holtby for playoff MVP

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The Washington Capitals can win the Stanley Cup for the first time with a victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

If they do win, one of the most pressing questions will be which member of the Capitals deserves the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

We asked our writers who have covered the Final for their thoughts, and it appears there are three strong candidates. Which one should be the MVP? Read what each of our writers had to say:

 

Tom Gulitti, staff writer

My pick would be Alex Ovechkin, but this wouldn't be a lifetime-achievement award, as some have suggested. This would be for the Capitals captain's full body of work in these playoffs.

That goes beyond his 14 goals, which are tied for most in the playoffs with Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets, and his 26 points, which are second in the League behind linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov's 31.

Ovechkin, 32, has been criticized in the past for not being a complete player. He's been one this postseason, and the Capitals have followed his lead. He's set the tone with his physicality -- his 79 hits rank third in the League behind teammates Tom Wilson (94) and Brook Orpik (83) -- and with his commitment to playing a 200-foot game.

Since the start of the Eastern Conference Final, Ovechkin has 10 blocked shots. Jay Beagle (13) is the only Capitals forward with more.

Video: Looking at Alex Ovechkin as a Conn Smythe favorite

 

Amalie Benjamin, staff writer

It's a two-horse race for the Conn Smythe: Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. And though I respect Tom's opinion, I'm going in the other direction. My pick is Kuznetsov, he of the playoff-leading 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists).

Kuznetsov, a center, has been the consistent offensive force that the Capitals have needed in getting to the Final, and in winning. Kuznetsov has a point in every game the Capitals have played going back to May 3, save one: The one when he was injured and played 4:26.

In that span, which covers the final three games of the second Round, the conference final and the Cup Final, Kuznetsov has had at least one point in 13 of 14 games (22 total). He has been the best when the Capitals have needed him most. Thus, he gets my vote.

Video: What makes Kuznetsov a difference-maker for Capitals

 

Tracey Myers, staff writer

It's hard to argue Tom and Amalie's choices, but I do believe there is a third worthy candidate for the Conn Smythe: goaltender Braden Holtby.

He didn't have a great Game 1 against the Golden Knights, but his body of work in the playoffs has been outstanding. What stands out to me are his back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. What a response with the Capitals trailing 3-2 in the best-of-7 series.

And let's remember Holtby was on the bench when Philipp Grubauer started Games 1 and 2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Calm and confident, Holtby's a huge reason the Capitals are here.

 

Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

We rookies at NHL.com need to stick together, so I'm backing the choice of my fellow newcomer, Tracey, by going with Holtby.

As Tracey astutely pointed out, he didn't even start Game 1 or Game 2 in the first round against Columbus. Since he got in, though, he's been a difference-maker.

Look at the offensive forces he's gone up against -- and defeated.

In the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he helped eliminate Sidney Crosby (89 points during regular season) and Evgeni Malkin (98).

In the conference final, he shut out Steven Stamkos (86), Nikita Kucherov (100) and the Lightning for the final 159:33 of the series.

At one point in the Stanley Cup Final, Holtby allowed just one goal in 127:56 until James Neal scored for the Golden Knights in Game 4, a 6-2 Capitals win.

Oh. And did we mention that lunging stick save against Alex Tuch with 1:59 remaining in Game 2, which preserved Washington's 3-2 victory?

We did now.

That could prove to be the turning point in the series.

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm2: Holtby reaches for unreal stick save

 

Nick Cotsonika, columnist

Ovechkin would get my vote over Kuznetsov, barely.

Kuznetsov has more points at a more demanding position, center. But Ovechkin has more goals and has made an even bigger impact at left wing, which is remarkable.

He is the beating heart of the Capitals. He scores. He hits. He blocks shots. He leads. Yes, the guy so often criticized for not leading leads.

In the behind-the-scenes documentary on ESPN+, you can see and hear him spurring his teammates in the hall, on the bench and on the ice. In GIF after GIF, you can see him living and dying with each play, and he is as happy for his teammates' success as his own.

He wants to win, badly. He always has. And the Capitals have followed his lead.

 

Tim Campbell, staff writer

I think Amalie is on to the most salient point -- that Kuznetsov has been the best when it has mattered most.

Leading the playoffs in points can sometimes be the result of point padding in runaway games, but that's not the case here.

Kuznetsov has been responsible for more of the Capitals' dangerous chances than anyone else.

He has frequently set the table for Ovechkin and has scored more than his share.

When he was selected in the first round (No. 26) of the 2010 NHL Draft, there was plenty of talk about the future, how much he would matter to the Capitals. It took three years for him to come to the NHL. But now we're seeing what those folks were talking about.

Video: VGK@WSH, Gm3: Kuznetsov snipes wrister past Fleury

 

Lisa Dillman, staff writer

How many days ago did we debate this question: Could Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury win the Conn Smythe if Vegas lost?

Hint: The discussion started May 25.

In other words, a lot can change quickly.

It's still about the goaltender ... the other goaltender. I'm right there with Mike and Tracey, and would vote Holtby.

That he didn't start the first two games of the first round against the Blue Jackets was a major test of his ability to quickly rebound from adversity.

A more recent example was his calmness after what he called a "rusty" performance in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, a 6-4 loss to the Golden Knights. He was steady, analytical and spoke with conviction, and he has backed it up since then.

After all, a short memory is a goaltender's best friend.

 

Dan Rosen, senior writer

It's good to see we saved the best for last.

My pick is Ovechkin, because although Kuznetsov might be the Capitals' most outstanding player in the playoffs, the captain has been their most valuable.

The Capitals are feeding off Ovechkin's emotions and his overall game. His 14 goals are tied for the League lead in the playoffs. That's enough to put him in contention. But he is doing much more, including playing strong defensively, blocking shots and attacking with physicality.

We used to say Ovechkin was a great individual player, but he didn't always make the players around him better. We can't say that anymore. Ovechkin is making everyone better.

Even on the power play, with the Golden Knights clearly focused on him, Ovechkin has been a moving target and he's opened lanes for others to score, including T.J. Oshie and John Carlson.

I've never seen Ovechkin as engaged and all-in as he has been in this postseason. He's the MVP.

***

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