Top Guns: NHL Conference Finals edition

Who’s skating their team to the NHL’s final four?

Hockey has been called the ultimate team sport.

And it makes sense. Unlike the other sport currently going through its postseason tournament, there’s no one on the playing surface for the length of a game, no matter how good they are. The line-shifting and intensely physical nature of the game ensure that even the best players are on the ice for only a fraction of the game and that just about every eligible player gets at least a few minutes on the ice. Compare that with the rosters of baseball or football, which provide teams with relatively deep benches staffed with fresh-legged reserves in the case of injury, fatigue or situational need.

But that doesn’t mean an individual can’t have an outsized impact on a series or championship run.

We’ve seen time and time again how even the players that no one would describe as shining stars can change the course of a championship—think Darren McCarty sealing a Stanley Cup for the Detroit Red Wings, Maxine Talbot upping his scoring for the Pittsburgh Penguins or even Tanner Glass’ play for the New York Rangers during their victorious tilt against the Montreal Canadiens earlier this postseason .

And if one of your stars does go off during the playoffs, it can send you to the summer celebrating. Just ask last those  Penguins, who rode a playoff-best scoring effort from big-name offseason addition Phil Kessell and a Conn Smythe-worthy performance from franchise centerpiece Sidney Crosby on the way to another championship last season.

After Wednesday night’s glorious Game Sevens, we’re left with just four teams still vying for the top prize. As we wait for the Conference Finals to start, let’s take a look at the players that deserve the most credit for getting them there.

Anaheim Ducks

It’s obviously: Ryan Getzlaf.

The big centerman is having a big impact.

Getzlaf finished the first two rounds with 15 points, the most of any Anaheim athlete. He also had multipoint efforts in each of the team’s first three wins, including four points in Game Four, and many of those points have been crucial for the Ducks.

He had a game-winner in the first round series against the Calgary Flames before coming alive against Anaheim. He scored the goal that started the Ducks’ miraculous comeback in the waning moments of Game Five and set up a brilliant assist to win the game in overtime.

There’s scoring lots of points, and then there’s scoring points at the right time. Right now, Getzlaf is doing both.

Or maybe it’s: Jakub Silfverberg?

Getzlaf may made the pass in that OT thriller, but Silfverberg was the one to fire the one-timer that put it in the back of the net.

And he’s put the puck in the back of the net more times than any Duck not named Ryan Getzlaf, and ditto with overall points. Silfverberg can also compete with the big man when it comes to clutch production, pairing his game-winning goal in OT during Game Five with a game-winning tally during the First Round. Considering he’s only 26 and carries a cap hit of just under $4 million, that’s pretty good bang for the buck.

You expect Getzlaf, a high-paid star, a veteran, hell, a Stanley Cup champion, to show up come playoff time. But if you want your team to make a deep run, you need production from a younger, cheaper talent like Silfverberg.

Final verdict: Getzlaf

Last night had to feel particularly good for Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, and a few of the other Ducks vets. Any series win, especially in a Game Seven, is satisfying, but to finally prevail in a situation where they have so often come up short has to be a real relief.

And Getzlaf can reasonably take credit for being the reason why. He was all over the ice during this series, and even if he didn’t add to his point tally on the Game 7 winner in the third period he was on the ice and undeniably part of the play that lead to the goal.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Getzlaf is leading Anaheim back towards the promised land, and unfair to tag him with the failures of years gone by. Along with Corry Perry, he was one of the two young Duck players who earned Stanley Cup rings all those years ago that is still on the roster.

The years since have turned a bit sour in Anaheim, but if Getzlaf keeps this up, the Ducks may fly to the top once again.

Nashville Predators

It’s obviously: P.K. Subban.

If there is anyone that loves a good narrative, it’s hockey fans and writers, and boy is P.K. Subban delivering one during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Subban was solid, if quiet, in the team’s first-round sweep of the always-heavily-favored Chicago Blackhawks. He registered just a pair of points in the series, but as some of his detractors have mentioned over the years, his job is not to score but to keep the other team from scoring. He was successful in that effort as part of perhaps the most impressive defensive performance in recent memory, helping to hold perhaps the greatest hockey franchise of all-time, including three of the Top 100 Players in the game’s history, to just a handful of goals.

In the second round, any silence or subtlety was gone. Subban exploded onto the scene at the start of the second round, almost singlehandedly delivering a Nashville win on the road in the opening game of the series against the St. Louis Blues. He didn’t sustain that scoring for the length of the tilt but did contribute two more assists as the team became the first to lock up a Final Four appearance.

Subban benefits from a deep arsenal on the Nashville blueline, which takes some responsibilities and pressure off of his shoulders. But he is still, as he has always been, the one under the microscope and subject to scrutiny for everything from his play during games (fair) to his warm-up routine before them (not exactly fair), and the fact that he’s playing at such a high level in the face of that pressure is a blessing for this team.

Or is it: Pekka Rine?

Pekka Rinne has been the best goalie by most objective methods during the playoffs and has certainly played the best of any goalie left standing. Nashville has allowed the fifth-fewest goals of any team to qualify for the playoffs since the postseason started, and the four in front of them have been eliminated from the playoffs. Impressively, Rinne and the Predators have allowed fewer goals than the Bruins, Flames, Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets—all of whom departed in Round One.

He may not have gotten the shine of other netminders, and the Predators’ blueline may be to thank for that, as could Rinne’s relative experience and lack of widespread notoriety. But he’s been as good as anyone, with the highest save percentage of any goalie still standing to prove it.

Nashville should probably be buying their goalie a few dinners after this is all said and done, and thank their lucky stars he’s been as good as he has.

Final verdict: Rinne

I love Subban, I really do, I have for a long time, and he’s been even better than usual over the past few weeks. He’s among my favorite players not on my favorite team because he’s incredibly fun to watch and a dynamic player who is one of a handful that can control a game singlehandedly. I also love a good narrative, so I should be all Subban here.

But I have to go with Pekka Rinne’s performance in net as the difference-maker for this Predators team.

The defensive effort of Nashville is why they’re in this prime position, just four wins away from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history, and no man dominates defensively on his own. Subban is the best on the squad, but there’s no doubt that Nashville has something resembling an embarrassment of riches on the blueline.

But even with that stout defensive corps, Rinne has seen more shots than anyone, and still stood tall. In my book, that gives him the top stop.

Pittsburgh Penguins

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It’s Obviously:  Marc-Andre Fleury.

At the risk of sounding cliche, we have to talk about a performance between the pipes again.

With the script flipped and Fleury filling in for the injured starter Matt Murray, he’s been nothing shy of brilliant.

While the Capitals bombarded the Penguins net, outshooting Pittsburgh handily in this series, Fleury stood strong, posting a 29-save shutout in Game 7 while stopping 93 percent of the shots he saw across the length of the series. Outside of the meltdown in Game Six, the Penguins’ netminder was all but perfect.

Fleury may not be a skater, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best player on the ice at times for the Penguins. Considering he saw more than 70 additional shots compared to his starting goaltending counterpart Braden Holtby, and still guided his team to a win, it’s impossible to describe his body of work in this playoffs as anything other than very impressive.

Pardon the pun, but I think it’s safe to say the Flower is in full bloom.

Or is it: Jake Guentzel?

The Penguins, like the Chicago Blackhawks before them, seem to have a renewable pool of young, cheap, fast players to pair with their talented and high paid corps. It’s a necessity for sustained success in the salary cap era, but impressive all the same.

During last year’s Stanley Cup run, the role was filled by Bryan Rust, and this year, it’s been rookie winger Jake Guentzel. The young speedster has put up 13 points already during these playoffs, an impressive second place on a loaded roster, behind only Evgeni Malkin, who may deserve a spot on this list due to his fantastic play, but alas.

There are lots of tropes that make a Stanley Cup team great. There’es the Old Guy Without A Cup, there’s the ending of a drought or a curse, there’s the chance for a superstar to finally add the most important piece to their resume, and there are the stories that inevitably tug on our heartstrings every season.

The Penguins have won a few Cups so they may be short on some of those stories this year—but they do have the young gun, and that may be the most fun of them all.

Final verdict: Fleury

We’re going goalie again.

As an Islander fan, I’m well versed in Fleury’s reputation in the playoffs —fair or not, it isn’t great. And you’d think the Cups could be his answer, but given that Matt Murray was at the helm for most of last year’s championship run, Flower still has plenty of doubters, but if he finishes what he’s started during these playoffs, he may have fewer come June.

Matt Murray is apparently healthy after an extended absence due to injury, and dressed as the backup in Game 7, presumably at the ready if things went haywire. Here’s hoping that Fleury gets to stick with this through at least the first few games of the matchup against the Ottawa Senators (who we’ll get to in just a moment.) He’s certainly earned it.

Ottawa Senators

It’s obviously: Erik Karlsson. 

Here’s pretty much all you need to know about Karlsson’s playoff performance this year:

In case that wasn’t enough for you, there’s also this—Karlsson has been on the ice for every game-winning goal the Senators have scored in the playoffs.

To sum it up, Karlsson has been frighteningly good. He leads the team in ice time and in points.  He’s on the positive side of the ancient metric known plus/minus, and his advanced metrics look even better. No matter how you slice it, this guy has been out of this world, and there isn’t much more to be said on the matter.

Or is it: Bobby Ryan?

I know how to spell intense, and I think it’s pretty clear that the Cherry Hill native does too (that’s my best Pierre impression right there.)

Ryan has been a famous target for derision based on his playoff performance over the years, but my guess is that reputation has been put to bed this April. He’s tied among leading Senators forwards in goal scoring that didn’t score four goals in one game and is the highest point-scoring forward on the team.

And these goals have been far from meaningless. He’s scored the game winner in a quarter of the Sens’ victories and has made some impressive and important assists as well.

So much for not being able to step up when it counts.

Final verdict: Karlsson 

Really, Bobby Ryan only made this list because I needed someone to fill out this bit for the Ottawa Senators. When it comes to who’s had the biggest impact on this Ottawa playoff run, the answer is: Karlsson, and it’s not even close.

We gave all the numbers to show how Karlsson is guiding the Senators to the promised land in the section above, and there are plenty. But there are plenty of less tangible reasons to believe in the power of the Swede: Watch Karlsson for maybe thirty seconds and you’ll know he passes the eye test for a great player. Without him, the Senators would lack almost entirely when it comes to star power (sorry again, Bobby Ryan). And without #65 that blue line would be….something? Distil it down, and it gets even simpler: without their captain, the Senators would be closer to the Canucks than the last of the Candian teams in the playoffs.

When it’s all said and done, there’s a reason we left Karlsson for last on this list. He’s had the biggest impact of any player in this postseason, and there isn’t anyone else who comes close. If the Conn Smyth was actually given to the player who was most valuable to his team’s success, there’s a chance that Karlsson’s already done enough to earn it, even if Wednesday was the last Senators’ win until next season.

The sad part is he’s barely given his due as the game’s best defenseman, much less one of the games four or five best players, bar-none. But he’s still got some time in these playoffs to make his legend grow even larger.

I wouldn’t bet against him.

Brendan Murray is the founder and benevolent dictator of ChinMusicPod.com. For more, check out the Monday Morning Update, follow Brendan on Twitter and like ChinMusicPod.com on Facebook.

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