Dark horse playoff performers

It’s playoff time!

Starting Wednesday night, we have the possibility of four games a day involving the best 16 teams in the NHL for the next 14 days. That’s how Round 1 does.

Love it. Live it. Revel in it.

Each year during April, May and (now) June, the playoffs create heroes. Some years, however, those heroes aren’t who most expect them to be.

Remember Chris Kontos? No? That’s understandable. He scored more than eight goals once during his career, but in 1988-89, he exploded for nine goals in 11 playoff contests, six of them power play markers. He led the Kings in goals that post-season and helped them beat Edmonton in seven first round vindication-filled games during Wayne Gretzky’s first season in L.A.

How about John Druce? He had 17 career playoff goals in 53 games. But 14 came in 17 games for Washington in ’89-90, including eight with the man advantage to lead the league. Only Edmonton’s Craig Simpson had more tallies and he played five more games.

Kontos and Druce gave birth to the dark horse playoff performer. Since then players such as Claude Lemieux, Matthew Barnaby, Chris Drury, Jan Hrdina, Alyn McCauley, Jeff Friesen, Ruslan Fedotenko, Fernando Pisani and Johan Franzen have raised their games come playoff time and surprised all.

Who will play the role this season? Here are 10 candidates, one from each of the Round 1 favorites and the two upsets we picked in our playoff preview. This is’s Top 10 dark horse playoff performers.

10. Jason Williams, Detroit
The hard-luck Williams, 29, averaged just 56 games played the past three seasons due to injury. But he’s a seasoned veteran and one-time 20-goal scorer who played his first NHL game eight seasons ago. And Detroit will need scoring from all corners to succeed.

9. Tyler Ennis, Buffalo
Picking a raw rookie with just 10 NHL games under his belt goes against the grain a little bit. But Ennis, 20, had nine points in those 10 games and if any of Buffalo’s forwards can’t get or stay healthy, Ennis will jump into a top-six role, where the points can come in bunches.

8. Tomas Kopecky, Chicago
Kopecky, 28, is a bit of a late bloomer, but has been around successful playoff teams in Detroit. He left the Wings to play a bigger role somewhere else and although he hasn’t lit Chicago on fire, Kopecky will be out to prove he has more to offer than Detroit let him show in past post-seasons.

7. Manny Malhotra, San Jose
Comeback player of the year? Maybe. Dark horse candidate? Definitely. Malhotra, 29, potted 14 goals this year, so he’s not too far under the radar. But the 11-season veteran also won 62.5 percent of his faceoffs, which is why he’ll see a lot of ice time this spring.

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6. Daniel Carcillo, Philadelphia
Carcillo, 25, may not be a star, but he’s exactly the type who thrives in the post-season; a take-no-prisoners, do-whatever-it-takes guy, who will go to the net and has shown some scoring ability in the past.

5. Steve Bernier, Vancouver
A season interrupted by groin issues meant Bernier, 25, never really got into a groove. But he’s an agitator with hands who, at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, has a playoff frame. He’s a third-line guy, so Bernier won’t see the opposition’s top defensive players much, but could be placed in front of the net on the power play.

4. Mike Rupp, Pittsburgh
Speaking of playoff frames, how about 6-foot-5, 230 pounds with some Cup bling to boot? That’s what Big Mike Rupp brought to Pittsburgh this year. The 30-year-old former Devil knows what it takes to win in the post-season and has a penchant for timely goals (See 2002-03 Stanley Cup final).

3. Taylor Pyatt, Phoenix
Pyatt, 28, is about as far under the radar as a player can get; a first-line guy on a team many (including us) believe will lose in Round 1. The Coyotes are known for their team defense, goaltending and their Shane Doans, Lee Stempniaks and Wojtek Wolskis. But the one-time 20-goal scorer is another big boy who is battle-tested in the playoffs.

2. David Clarkson, New Jersey
We didn’t pick the Devils to get out of the first round, but if they do, bet on Clarkson, 26, playing a major role. He scored at a 20-goal pace this season and could very well end up on a scoring line if coach Jacques Lemaire feels one of the trios needs more grit.

1. Jason Chimera, Washington
If the Caps finally break through and make the Cup run many expect, their stars will have to be stars, but their grunts will have to step up, too; enter Chimera. At 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, he’s exactly the type of guy who can step in when one of the Capitals’ finesse guys finds the going a little too tough in the playoffs. Assuming that happens, Chimera, 30, will be primed to score at a much better pace than the 0.43 clip he did during the regular season.

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