It’s smooth sailing when the stars are on fire, but it takes four lines to win the Stanley Cup. Darren McCarty and Mike Rupp became noted for their contributions in the post-season and these are the four players – one from each remaining team – that could be difference-makers en route to the Stanley Cup final.
Stars always step up in the post-season, but the difference most years between a team that makes it to the finals and a team that falls shy of the last round is generally the play of their depth players. In some years, the depth players can even make all the difference. Take Darren McCarty or Mike Rupp, for instance.
McCarty, never the most offensively skilled of players, had one of the greatest games of his career in the Western Conference final in 2001-02. In Game 1 of the Western final that post-season, McCarty, who had scored just five goals and 12 points in 62 regular season games, notched a hat trick to help the Red Wings take the opening contest. Detroit wouldn’t look back, going on to their third Stanley Cup victory in three years.
For Rupp, it was one goal, the first playoff goal of his career, which made him a depth hero for the New Jersey Devils in 2002-03. Over the course of his entire 610 game career, Rupp scored only 54 goals. Having never scored a playoff goal in his career, Rupp found himself in the Devils lineup for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
In Game 7, Rupp opened the scoring 2:22 into the first period. He assisted on the Devils’ second goal to make it 2-0. And with time winding down, it was Rupp who found Jeff Friesen and got the primary assist on the goal that made it 3-0. To this day, Rupp remains the only player in NHL history to have his first career post-season goal be the Stanley Cup winner.
With only two rounds left, who are the depth players that could step up for the remaining clubs?
New York Rangers – Dominic Moore
It’s easier to name Moore as the player who could step up for the Rangers when he already has with the winner in Game 1, but to think that will be his only goal this series with the way he has been playing of late would be foolish.
In Game 7 against the Washington Capitals, Moore was the best player on the ice for either team for long stretches of the game. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, he picked up where he left off. When the puck was on his stick or when he was chasing down Lightning defenders on the forecheck, he was near unstoppable.
He may only have two points so far in the playoffs, but expect him to find the score sheet again. And even if he doesn’t, he’ll be a force for the Rangers in other ways.
Tampa Bay Lightning – J.T. Brown
It may seem like a bit of a reach, especially considering Brown was taken out of the lineup as a healthy scratch twice during the first round, but he has a history of coming up big when it matters. The 2010-11 Frozen Four MVP while with the NCAA’s University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Brown isn’t the biggest, he isn’t the fastest, but he has talent and a nose for a net.
Though he’s only found the back of the net once in the post-season — a Game 2 tally against the Montreal Canadiens — he has been one of the most snake-bitten forwards on the Lightning. He hasn’t gotten a lot of ice time, either, and has been primarily used in the defensive zone. That hasn’t stopped him from aiding in the Lightning driving possession, though.
Don’t be shocked if Brown’s name appears on the score sheet during the Eastern Conference final. He’s working for it and it’ll come.
Anaheim Ducks – Kyle Palmieri
Palmieri gets offensive zone starts, has put 16 shots on net in nine games, yet somehow has not a single goal to show for it. In 57 regular season games, he managed 14 goals and 29 points, but has only two assists to show for his effort in the post-season.
He’s not the Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry type of player – an all-star just waiting to have that one big game – but Palmieri is a constant threat to find the back of the net. He found the score sheet twice in the second-round series against the Flames, both assists, but hasn’t scored his first of the playoffs quite yet.
In his career, however, Palmieri has generally made the most out of his post-season opportunities. In his first full playoff run with the Ducks, Palmieri scored three goals and five points in seven games. The next post-season, he found the back of the net three times in nine games. That he hasn’t scored yet seems like an aberration and if the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t careful, the 24-year-old could burn them.
Chicago Blackhawks – Marcus Kruger
During the regular season, Kruger averaged little more than 13 minutes per game. In the post-season, that has risen to nearly 16 minutes per game. If that doesn’t speak to him stepping up, not much else will.
In the regular season, Kruger didn’t necessarily blow anyone away with his scoring prowess – he scored seven goals and 17 points in 81 games – and he only has one goal to speak of in the post-season this year. That said, he has been able to contribute at least a handful of points – five in 2012-13, four in 2014-15 – in each of his last two post-seasons.
Will he dazzle like Patrick Kane? No. Will he deke like Jonathan Toews? Doubtful. But what Kruger will do is be one of the most effective Blackhawks on the ice throughout the entire Western Conference final.