Conn Smythe Triple Threat Match: Ovechkin vs. Kuznetsov vs. Holtby

Capitals on the brink of franchise history (1:37)

Greg Wyshynski believes Washington will the Stanley Cup in Game 5, while Emily Kaplan says Vegas will extend the series just one more game. (1:37)

WASHINGTON -- Does Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov care about the Conn Smythe Trophy?

"No, no, no. What is [it] going to give you? Nothing, right? People are going to talk about it, but I don't think it's the biggest thing for me," he said after Game 4.

Kuznetsov and his teammates obviously have larger hardware on their minds, sitting one win away from the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, with a 3-1 series lead against the Vegas Golden Knights.

But playoff MVP is more than just a footnote to the larger championship narrative. The players who collect the Conn Smythe do so not symbolically but emphatically. Outside of a few exceptions, the playoff MVP is the player without whom none of this could have happened. While a media-voted award obviously has its popularity-contest virtues, there's no denying that the winner enters a pantheon of NHL deities: Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Mark Messier, Nicklas Lidstrom and Sidney Crosby among them.

Evgeni Malkin won the award in 2009 for the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is one reason the candidacies of Kuznetsov and teammate Alex Ovechkin are so intriguing: Malkin is, to date, the only Russian-born player to win the Conn Smythe.

"Ovi has been a staple since he's come into the league. Kuzy is a little newer. People don't really know him as well as Ovi. You're seeing the talent of Kuzy. You've seen the greatness of Ovi over the course of his career to this point. I think Kuzy is just getting better and better. He's taken a bigger piece of this team," said coach Barry Trotz.

In the eyes of many, the Capitals' Russian teammates are the leaders for playoff MVP, should the Capitals close out the Golden Knights -- and this being the Capitals, even after this dominant stretch, we offer there are no guarantees. But this could end up being a Triple Threat match, like the one at the 2015 Royal Rumble: We're so focused on Brock Lesnar and John Cena that Seth Rollins could steal the show.

In this corner: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Kuzy, as his teammates call him, leads the playoffs with 31 points in 23 games. Well, 22 and a third games, as he missed two periods and change of Game 2 with an injury to his left arm or shoulder. His 12 goals are second to Ovechkin and Mark Scheifele (14). The Conn Smythe demands big moments, and few were bigger than Kuznetsov's overtime goal in Game 6 against Pittsburgh, which shoved King Kong off the collective backs of the Capitals in finally overcoming their arch rivals.

"He's been great all season, for the last couple seasons, really. One of the most dynamic players and can take over the league if he wants to and I think he's that talented and sees the game better than anyone else," said defenseman John Carlson.

For Kuznetsov, the Conn Smythe would be confirmation of his elite status, putting him in the conversation as one of the league's most talented players more frequently. Heck, the "flappy bird" goal celebrations probably earned him a few votes already.

In this corner: Alex Ovechkin

The Capitals' captain has 26 points in 23 games. Among them are 14 goals, tied for the playoff lead.

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled on whether something's different about Ovechkin in this postseason, as his 1.13 points per game represents his highest rate since 2010. Coach Barry Trotz has referenced his total buy-in, and the fact that he challenged Ovechkin to answer his critics before the season with exemplary play, which he has. But Ovechkin has always been a playoff scorer. It's just that, perhaps, his scoring hasn't been this impactful: having a hand in three game-winning goals in the Penguins series; scoring two back-breaking goals on the road in Games 1 and 2 against the Lightning, and then the first goal of Game 7 in Tampa that all but assured victory (based on probabilities); then, against Vegas, scoring critical goals in Games 2 and 3 as the Capitals took control.

But beyond that on-ice performance, the Capitals will tell you, to a man, that Ovechkin's unbridled enthusiasm is what drives them. "Ever since I've been here, he's the guy that drives this team. He seems to score every kind of goal imaginable. He's playing hard. He's finishing checks. He's doing the little things. That's what you need to do this time of year," said Tom Wilson.

For Ovechkin, a Stanley Cup win forever ends this inane conversation about his individual glory vs. his lack of team success. But why not toss in the Conn Smythe just so we don't have to hear some Russian-loathing hockey scribe muttering "but he never won a playoff MVP award!" at Ovechkin's Hall of Fame induction?

In this corner: Braden Holtby

The aforementioned "Seth Rollins" in this Triple Threat match. Holtby has been "Holt-Beast" since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. He's won five of six games. Take out the anomalous Game 1 in the Stanley Cup Final in which the teams combined for 10 goals, and Holtby has a .965 save percentage in those five wins. That includes his becoming the fifth goalie in NHL history to post back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a series. This is what you call "closing the deal."

"He's our rock back there," said center Jay Beagle. "He's been unreal for us ever since he's been here. especially this year and in this playoffs he's elevated his game to a new level. He's unbelievable and when something like that happens you just want to pick him up; you want to continue to keep working for him, and he's been so key for us, so we continued rolling and we had faith and confidence in him."

For Holtby, the MVP would complete a journey from his benching for Games 1 and 2 against the Columbus Blue Jackets to leading his team to its first Stanley Cup. And Conn Smythe voters do like a redemption arc.

We should mention one more possibility here, because the sportsbooks continue to do so:

Special guest referee: Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury was the best goalie in the playoffs entering the Stanley Cup Final. More to the point, he was putting together one of the greatest goaltending performance in the playoffs in NHL history, with the best save percentage for any goalie with at least 15 games in a single postseason. He was the reason the Golden Knights made the final round. He was, without question, their MVP.

And then the Final happened:

The question is whether he can still be the Conn Smythe winner if his team loses. Only five players have pulled that trick before, four of them goalies. The last one was Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003, and that might be the best comparison to Fleury: three dominant rounds, followed by a middling final (Giguere's being against the Devils). But his numbers were still better than Fleury's are currently against the Capitals, including two stout performances to rally them for wins at home in Games 3 and 4, and another one to force a Game 7. Currently, you have to say that Fleury doesn't have the Conn Smythe case he did entering the Final, which is to say it could have been his to win or lose. But if he leads a Golden Knights revival, that could change.

"He's been the backbone all year long. He's made, all playoffs long, huge saves for us. He's gotten us this far. We have to do a better job in front of him," said defenseman Deryk Engelland.

Who wins the Conn Smythe?

In full disclosure, I do not have a Conn Smythe vote. If I did, I'd cast it for Ovechkin, whose will has been exerted in every round of these players. I can't deny what's been said about him by nearly every player I've interviewed, which is that he's the Capitals' pacesetter on this playoff run.

But I think the voters will give it to Kuznetsov, not only to avoid the obvious choice but because he has a chance to have the second-highest point total in a postseason over the last 20 years, behind Malkin's 36 points -- and, in theory, he could equal or surpass 36. That's going to be hard to overlook, and I don't expect the voters will.