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Conn Smythe watch: McDavid, Makar lead after First Round of NHL playoffs

Sean Leahy breaks down all the best matchups in the Western Conference ahead of Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Blues take on the Avalanche and the Oilers face off against the Flames in Canada.

The First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs concluded on Sunday night with a pair of thrilling overtime Game 7s that saw the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames advance to the Second Round.

Now that the First Round is in the books it is time for our first installment of this year’s Conn Smythe watch to see who stands out as the early leaders for the MVP of the Playoffs.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

McDavid was an absolute madman in their First Round series against the Los Angeles Kings, pretty much putting the team on his back in Games 6 and 7 of the series. He had 14 points (four goals, 10 assists), including six multi-point games. He had five over the final two games, having a hand in all but one of the Oilers’ goals during that stretch with their season on the line. He was everywhere. There is not an offensive player like him anywhere in the NHL.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

Speaking of unique, one-of-a-kind players in the NHL right now. Makar was a one-man wrecking crew for Colorado in its opening round sweep of the Nashville Predators. Just a truly incredible performance by one of the league’s rising megastars. He went head-to-head with fellow Norris Trophy finalist Roman Josi and completely stole the show, not only putting up fantastic offensive numbers, but controlling the game in every phase and every part of the ice. Nashville had no answer for him. Nobody does.

3. Carter Verhaeghe, Florida Panthers

It was not Jonathan Huberdeau or Aleksander Barkov that led Florida to a First Round win over Washington, the Panthers’ first playoff series win in 26 years, it was Verhaeghe. He has been a fantastic find for the Panthers the past two seasons (one of the many shrewd additions by their front office) and stole the show against the Capitals. He scored two-game winning overtime goals with the season on the line, including the series-clincher in Game 6. He had 12 points in the six games, including nine over the Panthers’ three consecutive wins to close out the series.

4. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

He has taken some heat at times during his Calgary career for his playoff performance, but there is no criticism to be had so far this season. He was outstanding against Dallas and had a massive Game 7 performance that included the overtime series-clincher. That came after setting up the game-tying goal earlier in the game. His 2021-22 performance, regular season and playoffs, is going to get him a boatload of money this offseason.

5. David Perron, St. Louis Blues

Perron is not the flashiest player (though he does have fantastic skill) and is not going to stick his glove in somebody’s face and start a skirmish after a whistle, but you want this guy on your team in the playoffs. He has been one of the Blues’ top offensive players since re-joining the team for a third time in 2018 and is having another really strong postseason. He was great against Minnesota with nine points (including five goals) in the six games.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

6. Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers.

Now here is a name I did not expect to see on this list. Smith ended the regular season playing his best hockey of the year, and for the most part was really, really strong in the First Round, posting two shutouts, including their Game 7 win. That is worth something.

7. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

He was kind of lost in the shadow of Makar’s performance in the First Round, but he was still his usual dominant self with five goals in four games. If he and Makar can duplicate that level of play in later rounds the Avalanche are going to be ridiculously tough to knock out.

8. Antti Raanta, Carolina Hurricanes

He was not available for the entire series due to injury, but when he was out there he was a big difference-maker for Carolina. The duo of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta seemed like a bit of a gamble coming into the season given their recent play in previous seasons and their health concerns, but that duo teamed up to win the Jennings Trophy and form an outstanding pairing all year. Both have had their injury problems late, and it remains to be seen what happens when Andersen is able to return, but Raanta held his own against Boston and helped get the Hurricanes through.

9. Mika Zibanejad, New York Rangers

Interesting choice here maybe because he was invisible in the first five games of the series against Pittsburgh. But man, did he make an impact in Games 6 and 7, recording seven points to help the Rangers even the series and then win it. He started the Game 6 comeback with a pair of quick goals while factoring into seven of New York’s eight goals over the final two wins.

10. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues

Interesting to think about how different this Blues season could have looked had Seattle opted to take Tarasenko in the expansion draft, or if they had find a taker to trade for him when he requested out. Tarasenko returned to the Blues, returned to be an elite player, and helped drive one of the league’s best offenses. He was great in the First Round wit five goals, including a hat trick in one of the series shifting games in the middle.

Quick hit honorable mentions

Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning. Nobody on the Lightning had a truly dominant performance, but Palat stood out as a strong contributor and whose line carried play.

Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers. He was not his normal dominant self, but he did enough behind a Rangers defense that did not play well at all. He faced the most chances of any goalie in the First Round.

Jake Oettinger, Dallas Stars. Yeah, his team lost. But did you see him play? He was sensational.

Evander Kane, Edmonton Oilers. He had seven goals in the First Round.

Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames. He was also great in the Stars-Flames series, but he is going to get a much tougher test from Connor McDavid and Co. in the Second Round.

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. Steady hand on defense and a better offensive player than he gets credit for being.