Madden worthy of Cup MVP

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Every year, one or two excellent defensive forwards get their names etched onto the Stanley Cup. That's because you can't win a Cup -- especially these days -- without some top-flight checkers.

However, a forward who is better known for his defensive skills rarely skates away from a Stanley Cup finals with a Conn Smythe Trophy. In fact, since the league started awarding the trophy in 1965, just two "defensive" forwards have won the award -- Montreal's Bob Gainey in 1979 and Butch Goring of the Islanders in 1981.

Through four games of these Stanley Cup finals, New Jersey Devils' two-way, defense-first center John Madden stands among the best candidates. He also stands among the top playoff scorers.

"He plays for us in every situation -- even strength, power play and penalty killing," said Devils captain Scott Stevens. "He's a tenacious and annoying checker who also has an underrated shot. He's definitely an important player for us."

During the first three rounds, Madden was the linchpin in the game plan to shut down opponents' top forwards, like Boston' Joe Thornton, Tampa's Vinny Lecavalier and Ottawa's Marian Hossa.

In the finals, Madden has helped keep Anaheim's Paul Kariya off the score sheet. Through the first four games, Kariya hasn't recorded a single point and managed just six shots on goal.

"We all want to win," said Devils left winger Jeff Friesen. "But he's got an edge to his game that puts him over the top."

Devils defenseman Scott Niedermayer provided a similar description of Madden.

"He's a smart, competitive guy who plays with an edge," Niedermayer said. "Because of that, he's always in the right place at the right time. He's a big-play guy for us, and he always believes he can do it."

Madden, who won the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward in 2001, has been doing it on offense, too. In 21 playoff games, Madden has scored six goals and contributed nine assists for 15 points. He trails Minnesota Wild forward Marian Gaborik by just two points on the playoff scoring list and just one point behind linemate Jamie Langenbrunner among players that are still active in the postseason.

"I think goalies are surprised by the way he shoots the puck," said Devils left winger Patrik Elias. "He knows the game so well he's almost never out of position. A lot of times, he gets great offensive chances because of that."

While scoring goals is always nice, it's not what drives the former University of Michigan All-American.

"The most important thing for me is to compete," Madden said. "I want to compete hard in all areas of the game. If I don't feel, for whatever reason, that I've competed to the best of my abilities, I'm not happy with my performance.

"There have been nights when I might get a goal and two assists and wonder how it happened," he continued.

"For me, I'm really satisfied when I can play a complete game. That means winning important faceoffs, making some defensive plays, making good decisions with the puck and being competitive on every shift."

So far this postseason, Madden has been pretty satisfied with his play, although he pointed to two particular games -- Game 4 against Boston in the first round and Game 3 against Anaheim -- when he left the rink with a bad taste in his mouth.

"I wasn't happy with my performance in either game," Madden said. "In both cases, I know I could have been better."

If the Devils win another Cup, they'll do it because of their excellent team play. And, this spring, no player on their roster has been more of a factor at both ends of the rink than John Madden. That's why he should win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

E.J. Hradek writes hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com.