And then there were four. At the risk of sounding like a Goody Two-shoes, I can't imagine two more compelling matchups with lots of fresh faces in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks, along with the battle-tested squads, the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers.
With the last four set, it's time to narrow our focus on who might be leading the pack for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the postseason MVP. And how about a handful of dark horses just for fun?
1. Ryan Getzlaf, center, Ducks: Yes, linemate Corey Perry is the leader in points this postseason (see below), but it is Getzlaf, the Ducks' captain, who is driving this bus. Getzlaf is averaging more time on the ice killing penalties for the Ducks than even former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler. He leads the league with 10 assists and is the quarterback of the league-leading (in terms of efficiency) power play.
2. Henrik Lundqvist, goaltender, Rangers: Not much explanation needed, but here are some stats anyway. The King has turned in a postseason .944 save percentage in guiding the Rangers to their third Eastern Conference finals since 2012. He has given up two or fewer goals in 10 of 12 starts, and with the Rangers averaging only two goals per game in the playoffs, Lundqvist has had little margin for error.
3. Tyler Johnson, center, Lightning: With all due respect to captain Steven Stamkos, the Lightning aren't even first-round survivors, let alone vying for a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, if not for Johnson. He has delivered one clutch performance after another, scoring a league-best eight goals, and his three game-winners are also tops in the league.
4. Duncan Keith, defenseman, Blackhawks: Yes, Patrick Kane has been dynamic (see below), but we have been wowed by the performance of defending Norris Trophy winner Keith, whose 10 points lead all defensemen this postseason. Both of his goals were game-winners, including a crucial double-overtime tally in a to-and-fro series against theNashville Predatorsthat the Blackhawks ultimately won in six games. Keith also ranks second among all skaters in these playoffs with an average ice time of 30:37. With the Blackhawks' defensive depth being tested, he has risen to the challenge and helped Chicago to theconference finals for the fourth time since 2010.
5. Corey Perry, right wing, Ducks: OK, so Perry has been pretty darned good, too. And we will not soon forget his dramatic return to action in Game 5 against Calgary in the second round, after earlier suffering what appeared to be a cataclysmic knee injury. Perry shook off the injury and played a regular shift in the third period before scoring in overtime to eliminate the Flames. He has points in seven of nine games.
1. Patrick Kane, right wing, Blackhawks: Kane, of course, wasn't even supposed to be playing yet, thanks to a broken clavicle that cost him the last quarter of the regular season. He returned for the start of the playoffs and has been dynamic, recording at least a point in nine of 10 games. He has seven goals and two game-winners and, as is his habit, has been a difference-maker almost every night.
2. Ben Bishop, goaltender, Lightning: Yeah, we know, there have been a few hiccups for Bishop along the way. Hey, it's the big man's first postseason experience. For us, it's about how Bishop has performed when it has mattered most for a Tampa team that has shown some jitters as it wrestles with newfound playoff expectations.
Bishop held the fort in Game 7 against Detroit when the Lightning were the second-best team for most of that game. Then, when Montreal was mounting a surprising pushback after falling behind in the series 3-0, it was Bishop who stood tall in Game 6 to prevent a Game 7 back in Montreal. Overall, he has been terrific with a .931 save percentage and one shutout.
These four players probably won't get much hardware love, but they are nonetheless integral to the success of their teams.
1. Victor Hedman, defenseman, Lightning: It's hard to imagine there won't be Norris Trophy discussion in the future for the No. 2 overall draft pick, but right now he's shouldering a significant load on the blue line for the Lightning. Hedman is averaging a team-high 22:55 in ice time, including 2:41 in shorthanded situations. He also has a goal and five assists and is second on the team in the advanced stat SAT, also known as Corsi.
2. Ryan McDonagh, defenseman,Rangers: It's clear that the Rangers are determined to play only in games that are decided by one goal, having done so 12 straight times in these playoffs. If that's the case, look for their captain to continue to be a force. The defenseman has scored twice, both counting as game-winners, and is averaging 24:46 in ice time. Outside of Lundqvist, McDonagh is easily the most important player suiting up for the Rangers.
3. Marian Hossa, right wing, Blackhawks: The goal-scoring totals might have dipped for the veteran two-time Stanley Cup winner, but the 36-year-old has found a wellspring of energy this spring and been a force for the Blackhawks. He has only one goal but seven assists. He has a goal and an assist in shorthanded situations, and is generally playing at a Hall of Fame level. Again.
4. Frederik Andersen, goaltender, Ducks: If there was an area that might have sparked doubts about the Ducks, it became goaltending when second-year man Andersen was handed the reins. All Andersen has done is go 8-1 and turn in a 1.96 GAA and .925 save percentage. More important, he stood tall as the Ducks fell behind the Winnipeg Jets in all four games en route to a first-round sweep, and did the same thing twice to Calgary in the second round. In short, solid as a rock.