BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. I'm awaiting a flight westward in Chicago, and I must admit this whole Western Conference beauty remains a bit of a blur. Still can’t believe the Chicago Blackhawks couldn't close the deal after leading Game 7 by 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 counts, but that’s a credit to a Kings team that simply wouldn’t stay down on the mat. Not that they didn’t have their down moments against the defending Stanley Cup champs, blowing a 3-1 series lead with two straight losses that included blown third-period leads of their own. But here they are in the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years, and they will have home-ice advantage against the surprising Rangers. I know you covered the Eastern Conference finals, and I know from your preview that you like the Kings’ chances at winning their second Cup over that same three-year period. But I don't think it's going to be as easy as some people think. The Kings left a lot on the table against Chicago. A lot. Dustin Brown called it the most emotional playoff series in which he has ever participated. Which leads us to the topic for our little tête-à-tête today, which is: Who is shaping up to be a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidate? Let’s start with the favored Kings. I’ll toss out Jeff Carter’s name. He scored his ninth goal of the playoffs in Game 7 and led all players in the West finals with 11 points. He has been a force and a major factor in the surprising contributions of kids Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.
LEBRUN: I’m catching a flight from Toronto to LAX later today, my friend. See you soon! Yes, as you saw in my Cup finals preview, although I do like the Kings to win the Cup, I suggested the Rangers will push them to seven games. Despite the superiority gap the West has over the East in general, the fact that the Kings had to work so hard to finish off the Blackhawks gives the Rangers an edge, due to L.A.'s fatigue level entering this series. Not to mention, Henrik Lundqvist over an inconsistent Jonathan Quick is another factor. So I do not think it’s going to be easy, by any measure. The taxing reality of having to beat the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago over 21 grueling games has really tested what I think the Kings have left. As for the Conn Smythe, although I agree Carter has been terrific, I think it goes without saying that if we held the vote today, Drew Doughty would win in a landslide. The dude is simply the best defenseman in the NHL. He leads all Kings and Rangers in ice time in these playoffs at 27:50 a game. Offense, defense, special teams, leadership, physicality -- Doughty does it all. And let’s not forget the Conn Smythe is for the entire playoffs. I agree Carter was sensational in the Western finals, but Doughty has been out of this world since Day 1 in mid-April.
BURNSIDE: I agree with you on Doughty. He’s at the emotional core of the Kings, and in fact it was interesting to hear Brown, the Kings’ captain, talk about the need for his teammates to sometimes calm Doughty down and keep him focused the right way. "I guess the way to kind of explain it [is] Dewy gets pretty emotional out there, and sometimes it takes one or two guys to go over there and calm him down. Then, he’s great. He gets very emotional, which I love, but sometimes he lets it get the best of him. Once somebody calms him down, then he takes over the game. He can use that emotion the right way." Doughty leads all defensemen with 16 points and has logged more ice time in the playoffs than any other player -- by a country mile. If he keeps up his current level of play, he’s going to make everyone in the Eastern Conference forget about Montreal’s great P.K. Subban, and if that’s the case, he’ll make a compelling case for a playoff MVP award. But what about the Kings’ calming presence in the locker room and on the ice, Anze Kopitar? He leads all playoff performers with 24 points and has registered at least a point in 17 of 21 games. Amazing. He played head-to-head with Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews all series long, and I’m guessing he’ll see a lot of the Rangers’ top line in the finals as well. Definitely a worthy candidate.
LEBRUN: No question in my mind that Kopitar would be my next choice after Doughty. The Selke Trophy finalist has gone head-to-head with the likes of Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf and Toews in these playoffs and more than held his own, in some cases winning outright those key battles. No offense to the Rangers, but if Kopitar is matched up with Derek Stepan, that’s a bit of a step down from the previous centers he saw in these playoffs. Certainly, to me, it’s a 1-2 race of Doughty and Kopitar for Conn Smythe, and I agree Carter is a solid No. 3. What about the Rangers? As stated above, the Blueshirts have a better shot than we would have thought a week ago because of the Kings’ marathon Western finals. And if the Rangers do win the Cup, it’s because of Lundqvist. Although I suspect stud blueliner Ryan McDonagh also would garner some Conn Smythe traction if the Rangers win the Cup -- he’s been out of this world all postseason -- I still think that if New York pulls off the upset, it’s because King Henrik stumped the Kings. That, combined with his stellar play for most of the postseason, would get him a no-brainer Conn Smythe.
BURNSIDE: The discussion is pretty heavily weighted toward the Kings, and I think there’s ample reason for that. But, like you, I think this has the potential to be a long series, given the Kings’ heavy workload thus far and the extra rest the Rangers enjoyed after dispatching the Habs in six games. Everyone will point to Lundqvist as the Rangers’ prime Conn Smythe candidate, and it’s hard to argue with that. Except for a slight wobble in Game 5, he’s been pretty terrific since the Rangers fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in the second round. If the Rangers push this to seven games, I could see a scenario in which Lundqvist earns MVP honors even if the Rangers can’t complete the dream run to a Cup championship. That said, the only other player I think has a chance to enter the discussion for the Rangers is Martin St. Louis. There’s the emotional aspect of what St. Louis has been through: losing his mother in the midst of the Pittsburgh series and continuing to play -- and play exceptionally well. And as the playoffs have gone on, he has become better and better. His overtime winner against the Habs in Game 4 was a series changer, as it gave the Rangers a 3-1 series lead that forced the Habs into full catch-up mode. You know he has the will and the skill to do more damage in the finals, and if the Rangers happen to effect the upset, I'm guessing St. Louis will have a hand in it and thus play a big role come voting time for the MVP honors.
LEBRUN: The emotion that has wrapped this Rangers team ever since Martin St. Louis’ mother passed away unexpectedly on May 8 has been incredible. The players have rallied around St. Louis, and he has responded through adversity by playing his best hockey of the season. It’s why there’s a sense of destiny around this team, even if they are the underdogs. I still think, though, that if the Rangers upset the Kings, that win nets Lundqvist the Conn Smythe.
Well, my friend, before the day is over, we’ll be drinking diet soda together. Safe travels. Hoping this is a terrific Cup finals.