Last year, we saw Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin win the award, one year after an uneven playoff performance that was panned by many observers. Malkin clearly was on a mission, and he understood what he had to do to help atone for the Penguins' Finals loss last year.
As this year's Finals begin, the focus is on a handful of players from both Philadelphia and Chicago, all of whom are a big performance in this series away from winning one of the sport's more prestigious individual awards.
Blackhawks vs. Flyers Series Page
1. Mike Richards, C
All Pierre McGuire "Monster!" and "That's leadership right there!" jokes aside, how can you not like Richards right now?
Captains are expected to assert themselves in the locker room. They're expected to lead by example on the ice. They're expected to be their team's best player when it's needed the most.
Richards has done all three of these things in the playoffs. He's an inspirational leader on his team, not just because of his willingness to speak up in the room, but because of his play on the ice. It was just an empty-net goal, but the series clincher against Montreal was a shining example of what Mike Richards means to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Factor in that Richards is producing at over a point per game, and you have a great candidate for the Conn Smythe.
2. Chris Pronger, D
Much credit has to be given to the Flyers' top four defensemen. All of them have played big minutes, can be used in all situations and are on top of their game.
The best part for Philadelphia? Pronger, known throughout his career for disciplinary issues, has just 18 penalty minutes in 17 playoff games. It's right in tune with his regular season, which was the first one for Pronger since 2005-2006 (Edmonton) where he averaged less than one penalty minute per game played.
Oh, and this is the third time in the five seasons -- for three different teams -- since the lockout that Pronger will play in the Stanley Cup Finals.
3. Michael Leighton, G
He's only played in eight of Philly's 17 playoff games, but Leighton's impact is immeasurable. Brought in cold for an injured Brian Boucher during Game 5 against Boston, all Leighton did was complete the first combined shutout in an NHL playoff game since 1955.
Then, he shut the Bruins out for 59 minutes in Game 6, held them off the board after their first-period flurry in Game 7, and then started the Eastern Conference Finals with back-to-back doughnuts against Montreal. Throw in a third shutout in that series, and you have a goalie who is locked in right now.
Yes, the Flyers have played great hockey in front of him, to the point where they practically could have gone without a goalie in Game 4 of the Montreal series. You still have to credit Leighton. If nothing else, his ability to come in for Boucher in Game 5 against Boston was one of the single biggest factors in the Flyers' ability to come back in the series. When Boucher was injured, it was only a 1-0 game. If Leighton had struggled out of the chute, it would have changed the whole complexion of that game, and given Philadelphia's non-existent margin for error that night, they probably wouldn't be in the Finals now.
1. Jonathan Toews, C
Not many Blackhawk goals have been scored in these playoffs without Toews having a hand in the work. In fact, the Blackhawks' captain has either scored or assisted on nearly half the goals Chicago has scored in these playoffs. That's 26 points out of 53 goals, in case you might be keeping score at home.
Without anything else, that's enough to grab the attention of Conn Smythe voters. However, Toews is more than that. He's been a steady, quiet leader for one of the league's signature franchises, one that just four years ago was thought to be one of the worst franchises in all of pro sports. Toews hasn't rebuilt Rome by himself, but he's been a huge part of this renaissance.
Toews leads by example, but the respect he commands on that team is obvious. If he can help his team to a Stanley Cup, he's a great candidate for the Conn Smythe. Like Richards, Toews is ultimately leading by being his team's best player.
2. Dustin Byfuglien, F
No one player on Chicago's roster has generated more conversation than "Big Buff," who has scored four game-winning goals and been a constant factor in front of the opposing goal.
Well, he's been a constant factor there since the start of the Vancouver series. After he was shut out in six games against Nashville, Byfuglien exploded for four goals and six points against the Canucks, then chipped in three game-winners in the four-game sweep of San Jose.
Byfuglien is tied for 33rd in the NHL with 10 points in the playoffs. His eight goals rank him in a tie for sixth, though, and only Philly's Danny Briere has as many game-winners.
The playoffs are often about guys who somehow find their way into a game's biggest moments. Byfuglien has shown that knack so far, and it's enough to get him on this list.
3. Antti Niemi, G
Entering the postseason, questions were nearly constant surrounding Chicago's goaltending. Niemi didn't help much with a rather uneven performance in the first round, where he coughed up a hideously soft goal and didn't post an impressive save percentage.
Then came Game 1 of the Vancouver series, where Niemi was lifted after allowing five goals and not giving his team any chance to rebound from a soft start to the game. From that moment, Niemi has been nails for Chicago. He was solid in the four wins over Vancouver, then had his best game yet in the Blackhawks' series-opening win at San Jose.
As they finished up that sweep, Niemi may have been even better in the two games in Chicago. The Sharks threw virtually everything but the kitchen sink at Niemi, and he was up to the challenges. Thanks to Byfuglien's sudden nose for the moment, Chicago made the Finals, but it was Niemi who was the team's backbone when they weren't necessarily playing well.
The best example of that was the start of Game 4. While San Jose did eventually get a 2-0 lead, it wasn't without Niemi stopping as much as he could. Were it not for an outstanding performance between the pipes, the Sharks would have had a 4-0 lead in the second period.
Considering the legitimate doubts about this position before the playoffs began, Niemi has been quite the find for Chicago.