All the marbles

Leaving everything you have on the ice is tiring. Sidney Crosby (left) and Jordan Staal (right) both earned the right to take a little nap with the Stanley Cup. We're going to find out who wants it that bad tonight.

There is a hockey game tonight, and it just may be the finest athletic event you will see on television all year long. Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals is as good as it gets in sports.

I can’t guarantee there will be a dramatic finish and there almost certainly won’t be a buzzer-beater to win it. Expect a low-scoring game. Tonight there is going to be back checking and shot blocking like you have never seen before. Defense is at a premium and it is universally understood among the players that tonight will require absolutely whatever it takes. Block a shot with your face if you have to. They can give you fake teeth; you can’t fake a Stanley Cup.

Every player on the ice, whether they were born in 1968 (Mark Recchi) or 1992 (Tyler Seguin), has dreamed about playing in this game their entire lives. Sixty minutes stand between each player and a Stanley Cup, 3,600 seconds the difference between immortality and insignificance.

Give only 99 percent for just one of those seconds and you’ll be watching the other team kiss the cup.

If you had offered Claude Julien or Alain Vigneault one game to win it all at the start of the playoffs, they’d take it in a second. Boston wishes it still had Nathan Horton and Vancouver wishes it still had Dan Hamhuis, Aaron Rome and Mason Raymond, but injuries are a part of the game and sometimes it’s the last team left standing that takes home the cup.

Everyone wants the glory. Everyone wants to say they scored the goal that won the Stanley Cup. It’s not enough just to want it. I’ve written about this before — the players are going to have to find some other level inside that they just haven’t been able to get to yet if they want to win this game.

Tim Thomas is one of the only players in this series who has consistently been able to reach that level. I’m not ready to move him up the depth chart on Team USA (ahead of Ryan Miller), but Thomas has been phenomenal. Last season I argued Antti Niemi for the Conn Smythe Trophy and I’m giving my vote to a goalie once again.

Win or lose, I’d give it to Thomas regardless. Last year I wanted it for Niemi, knowing he wouldn’t get it. They were going to give it to a scorer. This season, there are no run-away scorers like Patrick Sharp last season.

David Krejci has been very good for Boston, leading the NHL in points and game-winning goals this postseason, but while Vancouver needs to watch out for him, I don’t feel he strikes fear into the other team every time he touches the puck like Danny Briere did in the Buffalo-Philadelphia series. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been productive as well, and Michael Ryder has snuck into the top-10 in playoff scoring this series.

I’d have a hard time giving the Conn Smythe to anyone on Vancouver barring an epic Game Seven performance. Roberto Luongo has been way too inconsistent. Henrik Sedin is one point off the scoring lead but has only one point in the finals, three goals in the entire postseason and is a minus-7 this postseason, one of the worst rankings in the entire league. Daniel is close behind with 20 points and has scored or assisted on half of Vancouver’s goals this series, but that doesn’t mean as much when you’ve only managed eight goals through six games. Plus, he is a minus-5. The Canucks’ power play has been pitiful this series and that blame has to fall on the Sedins.

I think Alexandre Burrows has been Vancouver’s best player, but there’s no way the NHL is giving chompers an award any time soon. Ryan Kesler has 19 points and a positive plus/minus, but 47 penalty minutes hurt a team too much to be an MVP.

Scott Neidermayer -- now there's a playoff beard

It’s a stretch for a goalie to win the award, and even more so to think a defenseman would win it. I’m very impressed with Kevin Bieksa this series (lack of chin hair and all), Zdeno Chara leads the league at plus-14 and Dennis Seidenberg has played tight defense, but for a blue liner be named playoff MVP, they’d have to be really lighting the lamp on a regular basis. Defensive Conn Smythe winners are an elite class (with the likes of Bobby Orr, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Neidermayer), and I’m not sure any of these three are worthy of entry.

I’m very excited to watch tonight’s game, not only as a hockey fan, but as a fan of sport in general. Players are going to go harder than you have ever seen them go and give more of themselves than you have ever seen athletes give. If you’ve been watching the NBA finals, seeing effort like this might be enough to make you come back next season while the other leagues are locked out.

A prediction? I think Luongo bounces back and I know better than to pick a road team in this series. It will be a close, low-scoring game, 1-0 or 2-1. Who other than Burrows puts the dagger in Boston?

Pro Niemi for the Conn Smythe

It’s a day of mixed emotions. On one hand, we could see the Stanley Cup awarded tonight; but on the other, tonight could be the last NHL game until the fall. If the cup is won tonight, that means one more award will be given out as well, the trophy for playoff MVP.

The Conn Smythe Trophy almost always goes to a member of the winning team, and if it’s awarded tonight, it will be kissed by a Blackhawk. If you ask me, the winner is obvious. It has to go to Antti Niemi.

Niemi has been solid in net for Chicago all throughout the playoffs and has been everything they could have asked for. While Michael Leighton was the hottest of goalies at one point in the post-season, Neimi has been the most consistent, start to finish.

He boasts a .911 save percentage through 21 games, and owns a GAA of 2.62. While those numbers are only (only) 5th and 6th, respectively, Neimi has done enough to win games for his team—a category he ranks first in.

 

Some will argue that the award should go to Jonathan Toews, the playoff points leader with 28. But 21 of those are assists, only seven of them are goals. Don’t get me wrong, assists are important, but come playoff time it’s all about goals—or in this case, stopping them. Toews’ production has also slumped in the finals: no goals, two assists, and a minus-4 rating.

Toews has three game-winning goals in the playoffs, but you have to believe Neimi has won more games for Chicago than that.

Other players on Chicago that have a shot (a long one, but a shot nonetheless) are, in my opinion, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien.

Sharp has been playing out of his mind and is a bona-fide sniper. Keith is quickly becoming one of the most talented and feared defensemen in the game, and Byfuglien leads the league with five game-winners.

I doubt the award would go to a Flyer if they lose the series, but worthy candidates include Danny Briere and Chris Pronger. Michael Leighton gets an honorable mention, but he has been too shaky in the finals to warrant the award. Claude Giroux and Ville Leino have also been very impressive in the playoffs, but they’re not quite at Conn Smythe Award level.