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Kucherov, Pavelski in Conn Smythe mix

Lightning forward, Sharks captain among those contending for playoff prize

by NHL.com @NHL / NHL.com

The 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs are half over, with four teams alive entering the conference finals.

Before the Tampa Bay Lightning face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final and the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks start in the Western Conference Final, six NHL.com writers give their picks for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs.

There are many worthy candidates, but two players who have stood out to the NHL.com experts are forwards Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks.

Much will ride on what takes place in the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, but here's how the NHL.com staffers handicap the Conn Smythe Trophy race at the halfway point:

AMALIE BENJAMIN, NHL.com Staff Writer

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

2. Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues

3. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Kucherov goes five-hole to beat Greiss

Kucherov quite simply has been dominant, with nine goals in 10 playoff games. He has been the biggest offensive force on a Tampa Bay Lightning team that blasted through the first two rounds. Elliott had to survive two Game 7s in the first two rounds but had a 2.29 goals-against average against two of the best offenses in the game. While the Blues have shared the scoring load, Elliott has made all the crucial saves. Pavelski spent the first two rounds creating scoring chances and making good on them. He tied Kucherov with his playoffs-leading ninth goal Thursday as the Sharks advanced to the conference final.

BRIAN COMPTON, NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

1. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

3. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins

Couture came up huge when needed most; he had a goal and two assists in the Sharks' 5-0 win against the Nashville Predators in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round on Thursday. Couture has a four-game point streak and enters the Western Conference Final as the League's leading scorer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 12 games. Hedman, the Lightning's No. 1 defenseman, showed he is one of the League's best at his position against the New York Islanders in the second round when he had eight points and shut down Islanders center John Tavares during the final four games of the series. Hedman faces another tough challenge against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, but there's no reason to believe he isn't up to the task. Murray, 21, has been nothing short of spectacular for the Penguins, who were forced to begin this postseason without No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury because of a concussion. Murray has outperformed two of the best goalies in the NHL, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals, through the first two rounds. Murray will go head-to-head against Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, in the Eastern Conference Final.

Video: SJS@NSH, Gm6: Couture beats Rinne for the lead

NICK COTSONIKA, NHL.com Columnist

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

2. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

3. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

Kucherov and Pavelski share the Stanley Cup Playoff lead with nine goals. But Kucherov has scored his in 10 games, two fewer than Pavelski, and is a big reason the Lightning advanced to the conference final so quickly. He has 30.0 percent of their goals, including two third-period, game-tying goals in games that became overtime wins. Pavelski has three game-winners, tied for the NHL lead. But two came in blowouts, so we're splitting hairs here. Of the high-impact defensemen remaining -- Brent Burns of the Sharks, the Lightning's Victor Hedman, the Penguins' Kris Letang and Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues -- Burns has had the highest impact. He has 15 points, tied for second in the League, while quarterbacking the best power play among the conference finalists.

TOM GULITTI, NHL.com Staff Writer

1. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

2. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins

3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

Video: SJS@NSH, Gm4: Burns beats Rinne twice in Game 4

Burns does it all, logging heavy minutes on defense (a Sharks-high 25:48 per game), and is tied for second in the League with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) to help the Sharks reach the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2011. Murray took over in net for the Penguins with Marc-Andre Fleury recovering from a concussion, and has gone 7-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and one shutout in getting the Penguins to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2013. With Lightning captain Steven Stamkos sidelined while recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot, Kucherov has picked up the slack, tying for the League-lead with nine goals in 10 playoff games.

SHAWN ROARKE, NHL.com Director - Editorial

1. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

2. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins

3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

A stabilizing force for the Sharks, Pavelski has nine goals in 12 games, tied for the playoff lead. The Sharks have won eight games and Pavelski has scored the winner in three of them, including Thursday in a Game 7 win against the Nashville Predators that moved the Sharks into the Western Conference Final. Murray, appearing in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs, is 7-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop has a better GAA (1.89) and a better save percentage (.938), but also has more experience. Murray has taken a position of potential weakness for the Penguins in the absence of veteran Marc-Andre Fleury and made it an unquestioned strength. Kucherov has been among the most dynamic players through two rounds and is the Lightning's sole consistent goal scorer. He has nine goals; no other Lightning player has more than four.

DAN ROSEN, NHL.com Senior Writer

1. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

2. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

Video: PIT@NYR, Gm3: Letang pots empty-netter from red line

Letang has been the Penguins' best player in all 10 games he has played; he missed Game 4 in the second round against the Washington Capitals because of a suspension. He is the Penguins' ice-time leader (29:26 per game). He fuels their breakouts, makes them play fast because he plays fast, joins the attack and creates offense. He has eight points and is a plus-7. Pavelski fuels the Sharks in a different way. He has nine goals and 13 points in 12 games, and three of his goals have been game-winners. He has four goals and seven points on the power play. He's been clutch when they've needed him to be. Clutch is a word that should be associated with Kucherov too. Like Pavelski, Kucherov has nine goals, only he has done it in 10 games. He has scored 30.0 percent of the Lightning's postseason goals (nine of 30). He has 37 shots on goal, which means he's scoring on 24.3 percent of his shots. That number could regress, but his hot hand is a big reason why the Lightning are in the Eastern Conference Final.

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