DENVER — We're down to the conference finals in the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs and what a couple of matchups we have. No matter what team you're a fan of, if you love hockey, you have to at least be a little excited for these player matchups we're getting.
On one hand, in the Western Conference, we're getting an Oilers vs. Avalanche matchup that includes four top 10 NHL skaters in Edmonton's Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. On the Eastern Conference side, you have the two-time defending champ Lightning taking on the Rangers, a team hardly anyone expected to get this far. That matchup features two of the NHL's best goalies in Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin.
With just four teams left, Conn Smythe Trophy buzz is heating up ahead of the conference finals. The annual award is given to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, almost always to a player on the team that wins the Stanley Cup.
Last year, Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy became the first goaltender to win the award since Jonathan Quick in 2012. It's happened three times now in the past decade.
Oddsmakers in Vegas have released who their top candidates are before the conference finals, with MacKinnon and Makar leading the way, as the Avalanche are the favorite out of the remaining four teams to win the Stanley Cup.
Top five Conn Smythe candidates
Nathan Mackinnon, F, COL
While Edmonton's Connor McDavid is arguably the best player in hockey and the best player remaining in the playoffs, the Avalanche are heavily favored to defeat the Oilers and eventually go on to win the cup. So that leaves Avs stars MacKinnon and Makar as the top two candidates.
MacKinnon has been very solid in the playoffs thus far with 13 points in 10 games including eight goals over those 10 games.
Cale Makar, D, COL
Makar has been arguably just as impressive in the playoffs as MacKinnon, matching his 13 points but with 10 assists and three goals. The 23-year-old defenseman finished the regular season with 86 points, second in the league among defensemen (Roman Josi, 96) and he'll look to keep creating chances for Colorado in the Western Conference Finals.
Connor McDavid, F, EDM
He's the best player on the ice whenever he's on it and if you have ever watched an Edmonton Oilers game, you know what I'm talking about. Connor McDavid's dazzling speed and fluidity is mesmerizing.
His biggest obstacle to winning the award comes here in the Western Conference Finals, as he'll need to will his team to a series victory. He currently is tied for the lead in playoff points at 26 in 14 games, along with his teammate Leon Draisaitl. McDavid has seven goals and 19 assists in the playoffs. He also led the NHL in points in the regular season with 123 (44 goals, 79 assists).
Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, TBL
If the Lightning are going to three-peat, it's going to take some more stellar play from Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been dominant the last several years in the playoffs.
Among goalies that have played more than 10 games during this Stanley Cup Playoffs, Vasi leads in goals against average with 2.23. He's gone 8-3 in 11 games. He also leads all goalies who have played in 10+ playoff games this year with a .932 save percentage, just ahead of his Eastern Conference Finals opponent Igor Shesterkin (.928). He was able to get the Conn Smythe last year, and if the Lightning can get another cup, he could certainly do it again.
Leon Draisaitl, F, EDM
He's almost just as much as a scoring threat as Connor McDavid and he's on his team. How is that fair? Leon Draisaitl has the co-lead for playoff points with 26, along with McDavid. In the regular season, the 26-year-old center finished fourth in the league in points with 110, just 13 behind his teammate.
That makes him a threat for the Conn Smythe award, IF the Oilers can get past the Avalanche and go on to win the cup. He's a bit more of a scoring threat than McDavid, as McDavid collects so many points on assists. Draisaitl had 55 goals and 55 assists in the regular season while McDavid had 44 goals. So, if the Oilers can get to the finals and Draisaitl racks up the goals in that series, he could grab the trophy.