The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Saturday, the League is down to 61 games remaining on the schedule, with six to be played Sunday. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the eight-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, NHL.com will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.
It takes contributions from a full roster to win a Stanley Cup, but through the grind of the two-month process, there is always one player who elevates his game to another level and not only hoists the most prestigious trophy in sports, but also the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Last season, it was Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane who won the award after scoring 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 23 games to help the franchise win its second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
As the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs fast approach, NHL.com presents some of the early candidates, based on their performance in the 2013-14 regular season and/or past playoffs, to raise the MVP trophy in mid-June.
1. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins -- One of the best defensemen in the NHL for more than a decade, Chara averages nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game and has helped the Bruins all but secure home-ice advantage through at least the first three rounds of the playoffs. A former Norris Trophy winner as the League's top defenseman (2008-09), Chara will be asked to stop the opposition's top forwards on a nightly basis. If the Bruins go on to win their second championship in four seasons, Chara will have to play a role larger than his 6-foot-9 frame.
2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks -- Toews' health will be pivotal to Chicago's title defense; the two-way center is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season after being hit by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik during a game at Consol Energy Center on March 30. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he expects Toews to be 100 percent when the playoffs begin. If that's the case, Toews and his two-way game will be the primary engine that drives the bid to repeat by Chicago. Toews won the Conn Smythe Trophy (seven goals, 22 assists) after he led Chicago to its first Stanley Cup in 49 years in 2010.
3. Ryan Miller, St. Louis Blues -- Blues general manager Doug Armstrong hopes Miller is the final piece to the puzzle, which is why he was willing to trade goalie Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick and a conditional 2016 third-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Miller and rugged forward Steve Ott. Miller, 33, has been splendid since his arrival; he had 10 wins in his first 14 appearances with a 2.01 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, and has given the Blues a new swagger as they chase the Presidents' Trophy and the top seed in the Western Conference.
4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins -- On pace to play all 82 games for the first time in his career, Crosby has helped the Penguins overcome a rash of devastating injuries throughout their lineup to lead Pittsburgh to the inaugural Metropolitan Division crown. The NHL's leading scorer is all but assured of being a finalist for the Hart Trophy; he became the first player this season to reach 100 points on Tuesday and is more than 15 points ahead of his closest competitor.
5. Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks -- Perry has a knack for scoring clutch goals; his play down the stretch in 2010-11 (19 goals in the final 16 games) led to a Hart Trophy. The 28-year-old has eclipsed 40 goals for the second time in his career this season and will almost undoubtedly play a huge role if the Ducks play deep into the spring. Perry has 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists) in 61 playoff games.
6. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings -- Aiming for his second Conn Smythe (he won the award in 2012), Quick has returned to form following a groin injury and has arguably been the League's best goaltender since the NHL resumed play after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where Quick was the starting goalie for the United States. In a 17-game stretch which saw Los Angeles win 14 times, Quick earned 11 victories while boasting a 1.67 GAA and .932 save percentage. In the 2012 postseason, Quick went an astounding 16-4 with a 1.41 GAA, .941 save percentage and three shutouts.
7. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks -- Is this the year the Sharks get over the hump and not only reach the Stanley Cup Final, but win that elusive championship? If it is, it's a safe bet Pavelski will play a major role. The 29-year-old center is enjoying a career year in San Jose; through 78 games, he had 38 goals and 75 points. His previous highs in those categories were 31 goals and 66 points. Pavelski has also shown an ability to be clutch in the playoffs. Seven of his 24 goals have been game-winners.
8. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers -- The 32-year-old became New York's winningest goaltender this season when he passed Mike Richter on the all-time list. But Richter has one thing Lundqvist does not: a Stanley Cup. With a 2.28 GAA and .920 save percentage in 67 career playoff games, Lundqvist will be relied on heavily to deliver the Rangers their first championship in two decades.
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor