Candidates aplenty for this year's Conn Smythe Trophy Staff

6/3/2009 11:43:37 AM

It's been a two-month grind and Lord Stanley's Cup will soon be hoisted in the air by the Detroit Red Wings or Pittsburgh Penguins.

But which player has taken his individual game to a level unequalled by any other during the Stanley Cup playoffs?

The Detroit Red Wings hold a 2-1 lead in the series and they have done it with steady goaltending from Chris Osgood, a solid two-way effort from Henrik Zetterberg and a balanced attack up front led by Johan Franzen.

But should the Penguins come back to win the Stanley Cup, it will be likely on the shoulders of the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Osgood appears to be the early favourite at this point, allowing just seven goals in his last five games and a goals-against-average of 2.00 in the playoffs.

What makes his statistics all the more impressive is that many thought before the playoffs began, goaltending would be the Achilles heel for the defending champions, and rightfully so. Osgood finished the regular season with a less-than-stellar save percentage of .887, which was third lowest in the league among starting goaltenders. 

But the veteran netminder has three Stanley Cups for a reason. All he does is win and he told anyone who would listen that, when the playoffs started, he'd be ready to go.

"It's not easy to win in this league or everybody would be doing it," Osgood told the Detroit News on the eve of the playoffs. "I'm a winner. That's all I do. That's what you're supposed to do."

He opened the playoffs stopping 45 of 46 shots and has been anything but the weak link on another strong Red Wings team.

Not to be overlooked, Zetterberg is enjoying another strong campaign, mixing a solid offensive effort with an even better defensive one. Last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner is challenging Franzen for the team lead in points, while shadowing the opponent's top sniper each round.

First, it was Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who ended up with three points in a first-round sweep by the Red Wings. Then, it was Anaheim Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf, who was held to just one goal and one assist in the final three games of the seven-game series. In the last round, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks only managed one goal and one assist in their five-game series loss to the Red Wings.

Now Sidney Crosby is feeling the pressure of being checked by Zetterberg, who ranks second in the playoffs behind Cleary with a plus-13 rating. He also ranks second on the team in goals with 10 as well as points with 21 and enjoys the dual role of checker and scorer.

"You've got different roles and different situations, and this one is for sure a challenge," Zetterberg told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review before the final. "It's fun, and I'm trying to make the best of it."

While Osgood has kept the puck out of the net, Johan Franzen has been filling the net at the other end, picking up where he left off last spring. With regular season team scoring leader Pavel Datsyuk hampered by injuries, Franzen has stepped up in his absence.

Last season, 'Mule' scored 13 goals in 16 games, tying Zetterberg for the team lead in that category. This year, he's leading the team with 12 goals and 22 points through 19 games.

Teammate Daniel Cleary has high praise for Franzen, who is no longer flying under the radar.

"Last year, he caught everybody off-guard," Cleary told the Detroit News. "Now, he's just dominant. He drives hard to the net, he's big, he can skate, he has great hands and a great shot. He's unbelievable."

Should the Penguins dethrone the Red Wings, Sidney Crosby would be in a two-horse race with Evgeni Malkin for the top individual award of the post-season.

Crosby leads the playoffs in goals with 14 and has been the emotional leader of the Penguins throughout the playoffs. In Game 7 against the Capitals in Washington, Crosby scored the game's first goal and finished the contest with two goals and an assist.

Against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, Crosby scored twice and added five assists in leading the Penguins to a four-game sweep and a return to the Stanley Cup Final.

Maxime Talbot, who scored twice in the Penguins' 4-2 win in Game 3, gives Crosby much of the credit for the Penguins' midseason turnaround and subsequent success in the playoffs.

"He's been through a lot this season," Talbot told the Toronto Star on Tuesday. "But as soon as he came back, I think it was a turning point in our season. When he came back, the power play started to get going. He just gives you that confidence that, okay, I'm relaxed."

Malkin currently leads the playoffs in scoring with 33 points, including three points in Tuesday night's crucial victory in Game 3. He is the first player to surpass the 30-point plateau in a playoff year since Joe Sakic in 1996. Whenever Crosby is shut down by the opposing checking unit, Malkin has been able to raise his game and post impressive numbers.

Jean Sebastien Giguere is the last member of a losing team to be honoured with the Conn Smythe Trophy when his goaltending efforts weren't enough to propel the Anaheim Ducks past the New Jersey Devils in 2003.