You know what stars such as Jonathan Toews & Patrick Kane will give you in the playoffs. But part of the joy of the NHL’s post-season is seeing young players – & some who’ve been around a while – grow their games or catch lightning in a bottle. Here are the top five playoff breakout performances through two rounds.
Through the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs, we’ve seen some things we expected to see: clutch performances from Hawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews; excellent goaltending from Rangers cornerstone Henrik Lundqvist and Montreal’s Carey Price; and of course, controversial calls from the officials. But one of the best elements of the post-season are the surprise factors that emerge – the rookies who step to the fore, or the youngsters who not only realize the success many predicted for them, but surpass expectations. And although we’re only halfway through the Stanley Cup tournament, there are already a number of those types of suprises. Here are the top five playoff breakouts thus far:
5. Matt Beleskey, Ducks. You expected to see Corey Perry leading the Ducks in goals this year. You didn’t expect the person immediately below him on Anaheim’s list of top scorers to be 26-year-old winger Beleskey, who never had scored more than 11 goals in a single regular-season before he set career highs in goals (22) and points (32) with Anaheim this season. The 26-year-old was used sparingly in the opening round against Winnipeg, but found his scoring form in the second round against Calgary, scoring one goal in all five games vs. the Flames. Every post-season goal he scores from this point on is making the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent more money on the open market this summer.
4. Hampus Lindholm, Ducks. The 21-year-old Lindholm made strides in his sophomore NHL regular season – bumping his point total from 30 in 2013-14 to 34 this year – but in Anaheim’s nine post-season games this year he’s amassed five assists and six points, and his Corsi-for percentage of 58.99 is better than that of teammate Francois Beauchemin (58.03), Tampa veteran Anton Stralman (57.57) and Chicago’s Duncan Keith (56.33), among others. The Ducks knew what his potential was when they selected the Swede sixth overall in 2012, but considering he had just two assists in 11 playoff games last season, Lindholm is showing how quickly he’s adapting to hockey’s top league.
3. Nikita Kucherov, Lightning. Like Lindholm and everyone on this list, Kucherov had a strong regular season; the 21-year-old Russian winger scored 29 goals and 65 points in his sophomore NHL year, but he was still an unknown quantity at playoff time (having appeared in just two post-season games and posting one goal with Tampa last year). Well, he’s more than answered the question of whether or not he can produce when the games matter most: he’s got six goals – including two game-winners – and 11 points in 13 playoff games.
2. Jakob Silfverberg, Ducks. Part of the Bobby Ryan blockbuster trade with Ottawa in 2013, Silfverberg had four goals and six points in 25 career NHL playoff games prior to this post-season, including just two goals in 13 games of the 2014 playoffs. But the 24-year-old Swede already has three goals and 11 points in nine games with Anaheim before Anaheim’s Western Conference Final series against Chicago begins. He’s got tremendous vision and smarts, and as he continues to blossom, the Ducks’ embarrassment of riches continues getting more embarrassing.
1. Tyler Johnson, Lightning. Johnson’s shooting percentage through two rounds was an astonishing 24.2 – a shade better than Hawks superstar Kane’s (24.1). The undrafted 24-year-old is by no means an unknown quantity – you don’t become a Calder Trophy finalist and score a combined 53 regular-season goals in your first two NHL campaigns without making a name for yourself – but contrast Johnson’s output on offense last year (when he had just a single goal and two points in his first four NHL playoff games) to this year (leading all post-season scorers with eight goals as well as 12 points in 13 games) and you’ll see an incredible trajectory that has taken much of the pressure off Bolts superstar Steven Stamkos to dominate. Johnson will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017, and if he continues to have this much of an impact in the years ahead, his current $3.3 million salary will at the very least double.