There is nothing in sports that quite compares to the grind of postseason hockey, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs also are unique in the manner in which they reward their best player.
In football, the Super Bowl MVP is just that -- the best player in the season's final game. Major League Baseball recognizes separate MVPs for both league championship series and another for the World Series.
In the NHL, however, the Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded just prior to the Stanley Cup being brought out, to honor the player who has been judged to be most valuable to his team throughout the entire four rounds of the playoffs. It's for this reason that a player like then-Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere was able to take home the award in 2003 although his team ultimately lost in the Cup Final. In that instance, Giguere's body of work for the whole postseason spoke for itself.
We're only halfway through the 2011 playoffs, but it's not too soon to start speculating about who might take home this particular piece of hardware when all is said and done. NHL.com staff writers who have been covering the Bruins, Canucks, Lightning and Sharks over the first two rounds each picked two early candidates for Conn Smythe consideration based off performances to this point.
Tim Thomas -- This is a no-brainer. The Bruins wouldn’t be here if not for their acrobatic, veteran goalie.
Consider nothing more than his series-saving stop against Brian Gionta in the first round, a post-to-post denial on a 2-on-1 that certainly must still give the Montreal forward nightmares. Not enough for you? Well, remember Game 2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals? Philadelphia dominated that game after the first period, yet Thomas could not be beaten -- he stopped 52 of 54 shots on the night -- and Boston found a way to hold the fort before winning on a counter-attack in overtime to take a 2-0 stranglehold of the series.
Plus, there are the numbers. Thomas is 8-3 this postseason. He has allowed just 24 goals, despite facing 378 shots, the third-highest total in the playoffs. That equates to a .937 save percentage, good for second in the postseason, as is his 2.03 goals-against average.
Thomas' sustained brilliance has allowed Boston to survive its rare defensive lapses and given the team the confidence necessary to play a more attacking brand of hockey, knowing Thomas will turn away the majority of odd-man rushes. Dennis Seidenberg -- While the Thomas pick might have been a no-brainer, this pick is harder to defend, but no less deserving.
In the words of Boston coach Claude Julien, Seidenberg has been a horse for these Bruins. Only two defensemen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- teammate Zdeno Chara and Nashville’s Ryan Suter -- have averaged more time per game than the 28:34 Seidenberg has clocked in 11 games.
Seidenberg was switched onto the top pairing in Game 3 of the first round and has blossomed in the role of riding shotgun to Chara, the perennial Norris Trophy candidate. He started the playoffs with a minus-4 rating after two games, but is now a plus-8, meaning he has gone plus-12 in the past nine games, eight of which were won by Boston.
Seidenberg leads the Boston defense in scoring with 6 points, and his ability -- and willingness -- to pinch in the Philadelphia series caused the Flyers matchup fits from which they could not recover. His versatility has allowed Julien to be far more creative in his defensive pairings late in close games and has given the coach the confidence to run a four-man rotation this postseason after spending the regular season going six players deep.
Ryan Kesler -- His virtuoso performance in the second round against Nashville brought back memories of Mark Messier and Bobby Clarke. He was without question the best and most tenacious player on both ends of the ice in all six games, and his will to win carried the Canucks into the Western Conference Finals.
Kesler had a hand in 11 of Vancouver's 14 goals and all 20 of their successful penalty kills. The Canucks allowed only one power-play goal. He finished the round with 5 goals, 6 assists, 24 shots, 16 hits, 12 takeaways and a 59-percent success rate in the faceoff circle (105-73). He scored the overtime winner in Game 3, the regulation winner in Game 4 and had the primary assist on both of the Canucks' goals in Game 6.
Kesler wasn't just marvelous in the second round. He was equally as good, albeit not as productive, in the first round against Chicago. Kesler was largely responsible for holding Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews without an even-strength point in the entire series. Toews finished with only 3 points over the seven games.
Coach Alain Vigneault said it's obvious Kesler has "decided to drive the bus." Nashville coach Barry Trotz praised Kesler for being the difference in the second-round series because "he played to a level that few people can reach." Canucks teammate Roberto Luongo called him a "horse," and said the NHL "might as well just give him the Conn Smythe right now."
Roberto Luongo -- While caught in the middle of a firestorm after getting benched at the start of Game 6 against Chicago, the Canucks goalie was being criticized for being too soft and not mentally tough enough. Critics across the hockey world were wondering how the Canucks could possibly dig themselves out from under Luongo's massive contract, or if it was even possible.
Luongo admitted it was one of the tougher moments of his career, but seven games later he's getting the last laugh. Since being benched in favor of Cory Schneider for Game 6 against Chicago, Luongo has won five of seven starts and allowed only 12 goals in the process.
After backstopping the Canucks to a Game 7 overtime win against the Blackhawks, he went on to blank the Predators 1-0 in Game 1 and allow only one fluke goal in Game 6 to help Vancouver clinch its first trip to the conference finals in 17 years.
Luongo has stared in the face of his critics and told them all to sit down. He has eight wins, a 2.25 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and two shutouts in these playoffs. The Canucks are not in the Western Conference Finals in spite of their goaltending, as many believe. Luongo helped get them there.
Dwayne Roloson -- The veteran leads all playoff goaltenders in goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.941). That alone makes him a leading contender for the Conn Smythe, but Roloson's value to the Lightning goes far beyond that.
Roloson is the anchor for Tampa Bay's outstanding penalty kill (94.4 percent), and the Lightning's dominance when down a man might be the biggest reason why they are still playing. They've spent more time shorthanded than any other team in these playoffs, and Roloson has stopped 72 of the 75 shots he's faced with his team on the penalty kill. For a team that struggled in net so much after Nikolai Khabibulin left, Roloson has been the "missing piece" pundits thought he might when he arrived in Tampa Bay.
Eric Brewer -- The Lightning are eight wins from the Stanley Cup because of the team's dominance on special teams and its ability to keep the opposing team's top scorers at bay. No player personifies this more than Brewer. He leads the team in time on ice (26:09 per game) and leads the defense corps in points with 6, but his candidacy goes much deeper than that.
Brewer and partner Mattias Ohlund faced one of the best lines in the world -- Washington's Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble -- and shut them down at even strength (Ovechkin and Backstrom each had no goals and 1 assist during 5-on-5 play). That the Lightning basically have held serve at even strength with Brewer on the ice (6 goals for, 7 against) has allowed them to win games with special teams. He's also a key component of both units. Brewer has been on the ice for seven power-play goals without being on for an extra-man goal against -- while leading all remaining players in shorthanded ice time per game.
Joe Thornton -- The captain of the Sharks has been leading by example during the playoffs.
Not only has he produced consistently on offense with 2 goals and 9 assists -- including the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round -- but he has shown a willingness to go to the tough areas to get his points.
Thornton also has shown dedication to the defensive side of the game. After leading the NHL in takeaways during the regular season, he's in the top five in that category during the playoffs. His overall game is very worthy of playoff MVP.
Ryane Clowe -- He might not wear the "C" for the Sharks, but he's perhaps their biggest vocal leader.
Clowe has been an offensive and physical force while playing on the Sharks' second line, with Logan Couture and Dany Heatley. His 13 points lead the team and he's split them pretty evenly between the first two rounds -- he had 4 goals and 3 assists against the Kings; no goals and 6 assists against the Red Wings.
Clowe missed Game 6 against the Wings due to an upper-body injury, a game the Sharks were dominated in throughout. He didn't get a point in his Game 7 return, but his presence in the lineup made a difference in the decisive victory.