June 5, 2008 at 3:02 am

Vartan Kupelian

Kupelian: Conn Smythe has been controversial

Players on losing team have won, but Zetterberg most worthy this time

Marian Hossa tries to chase down Henrik Zetterberg, who had a goal and assist in Game 6 clincher. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

The Conn Smythe Trophy was introduced in 1964 to honor the former owner, general manager and coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The first winner was Jean Beliveau, the elegant center of the Montreal Canadiens.

On Wednesday night, the trophy designed in the image of the old Maple Leaf Gardens was held aloft by the Wings' Henrik Zetterberg.

Zetterberg became the fifth Detroit player to win the Conn Smythe. Only one team, Montreal, with nine, has had more Conn Smythe winners.

Nobody can argue with Zetterberg's immense contributions to the Stanley Cup championship the Wings completed with a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. His performance was impeccable and was equaled by his leadership qualities.

Zetterberg set up the first Detroit goal, by Brian Rafalski, and added the clincher with 12:24 left in the third period. After that, there was no road back for the Pens.

That's what the Conn Smythe was designed to do -- honor the best player in the playoffs -- and Zetterberg is worthy.

Team terrific too

But, honestly, if there ever was a team victory, a championship designed, constructed and executed in the image of a team and not an individual, this was it. I seriously doubt Zetterberg would dispute that notion.

As much sense as Zetterberg's selection makes, I could make a case for other Red Wings and even one Pittsburgh player, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

It's difficult to compare what other players did, in terms of goals and assists, to Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. How do you measure intangibles? That's why awards go to the offensive stars, even awards that profess to be for best defenseman and best defensive forward.

The point is so many Red Wings did exactly what they are supposed to do and played their roles to the hilt. They did their jobs with the utmost efficiency and within the framework of the Red Wings' concept. That's what makes this championship so meaningful and endearing.

There's one Detroit player who, in my book, was simply outstanding in the playoffs. He scored crucial goals, including the goal that sent Detroit off to the solid start it needed Wednesday night at Mellon Arena, and was a workhorse.

Rafalski was terrific. He did everything coach Mike Babcock asked. Always acknowledged as a very good offensive defenseman, Rafalski demonstrated during the regular season that he's dependable on the back end, too. If the notion needed reinforcement, Rafalski did just that during the playoffs.

Once the Red Wings won the first two games, the odds were stacked against Fleury, but with every game he improved his chances.

Some perspective

The list of Conn Smythe Trophy winners, and Fleury's unsuccessful bid, deserve some historical perspective, which might have been hard for many of the selectors who don't remember Roger Crozier or Glenn Hall.

Crozier accomplished his feat 42 years ago.

In his first full NHL season, 1964-65, Crozier started all 70 games for the Red Wings. He led the league with 40 victories and six shutouts, a level of performance that easily won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year.

The best was still to come.

The following season, Crozier, at age 24, took the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Red Wings lost the series in six games against a Canadiens team which featured Hall of Famers Beliveau and Henri Richard and was coached by the legendary Toe Blake. Another legend, Sammy Pollock, was the general manager.

Beliveau had won the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy the previous year and was even better in the 1966 playoffs.

When the selectors pulled the lever, it was Crozier who won the Conn Smythe despite playing on the losing team. In all, players from the losing team have won the trophy five times.

Glenn Hall, another former Wings goalie, won the Conn Smythe in 1968 with St. Louis despite the fact that the Canadiens swept to the Stanley Cup with four straight victories in the Finals. The Blues were an expansion franchise but, thanks to Hall's play, lost all four games by only a single goal. Against a powerful Montreal team, that made quite a statement about Hall's work in goal.

In 2003, Mike Babcock, now coaching Detroit, watched his goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, win the Conn Smythe on behalf of Anaheim despite the loss to New Jersey in the finals.

Fleury easily could have added his name. His work in Game 5 was spectacular. It saved the Penguins when it appeared there was no way they could survive against the Wings' onslaught.

Finally, there was no more Fleury could to stem the tide of the Wings' superiority.

Lesser performances than Fleury's have been awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, but Fleury, like the rest of the Penguins, simply ran up against a team that was too good, too prepared and too proud not to get the job done.

You can reach Vartan Kupelian at (313) 222-2285 or vartan.kupelian@detnews.com">vartan.kupelian@detnews.com.