Every year it happens. During the regular season, there’s a star player or a young up-and-comer who performs far below expectations. Maybe he slips down the lineup or finds himself watching from the sidelines as a healthy scratch once or twice, leaving many to wonder whether the money shelled out or the hope placed in a player is really worth it.
And then the playoffs start.
The player who was once in the middle of the lineup with questions about whether he could still contribute, could still be part of a successful franchise, starts to catch fire. He finds the back of the net early and often, starts piling up points and sooner or later it looks like he’s the unstoppable force he was supposed to be all along. The result is a deep playoff run with a deeper roster than anyone expected, thanks in large part to an under-performing player starting to find his game.
The great thing is that those players — the ones derided for their poor play during the season or questioned as the puck drops on the playoffs — can often end up becoming post-season heroes. And this year has been no different.
Here are five players who were only OK in the regular season but have made big contributions and hit their stride since the start of the post-season:
Colton Sissons, Nashville Predators
Sissons’ season was set to be his first in which he was a full-time NHLer, and that usually comes with a few lumps. For the 23-year-old pivot, that meant more than a handful of games watching from the sideline — and not because he was injured. He did miss eight games due to ailments, but 16 times this past campaign, Sissons was watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. Even when he did get into the lineup, he wasn’t a big part of the attack, averaging roughly 11 minutes a game and netting 10 points in 58 outings.
Sissons got hot early in the post-season, however. Two games into the first-round series against Chicago, he notched his first career playoff goal, but he saved his best work for the fourth and ultimately deciding game of the series. With the Blackhawks on the ropes, Sissons netted a goal and an assist, with his marker standing as the game-winner and the tally that sent the Western Conference favorites home in spectacular fashion.
Through 14 games, Sissons has two goals and six points, and if the Predators continue their run into the Stanley Cup final, it’s not an unrealistic goal for Sissons to surpass his regular season contributions.
Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators
The operative word here is mediocre, so while Brassard wasn’t downright awful, he certainly wasn’t close to producing in the way the Senators had hoped when they acquired the 29-year-old. Coming off of a career-best 27-goal season, one in which he flirted with the 60-point plateau for the second-straight campaign, Brassard came into Ottawa with hopes of becoming an additional offensive force for a team that could use some extra scoring punch down the middle. Instead, his goal and points totals were nearly halved, thanks in part to coach Guy Boucher’s defense-first system.
Brassard began his Senators career with a goal and an assist in the season-opener, but over the next 15 games, he managed just four assists and failed to find the back of the net. It was mid-November by the time he scored his second goal, and when the season had concluded, Brassard has 14 goals and 39 points to his name. That’s a far cry from what he had done in 2015-16 with the New York Rangers.
He’s been a different animal in the playoffs, though. In 15 games, Brassard has four goals, 11 points and the bulk of his scoring has come at even strength. Don’t be too surprised, though. Heading into the post-season, he had 18 goals and 44 points in 59 career playoff games.
Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks
Perry was the impetus behind this list because it’s getting awfully hard to ignore him this post-season. In Thursday’s game against the Predators, Perry’s prayer of a shot in overtime managed to deflect in off the stick of Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, giving Perry his third overtime-winner of the playoffs. That’s significant in that it ties a record held by only two players in league history: Mel Hill, who scored three OT goals in 1939, and Maurice Richard, who managed the feat in 1951.
No one would have guessed Perry was about to have this type of offensive impact given his regular season performance, though. Across 82 games, he managed 19 goals. Not bad for most players maybe, but Perry, a 50-goal scorer in 2010-11, has broken the 20-goal plateau in every single 60-plus game season he’s played in the past decade. His 53 points this past campaign are also his fewest in a full-campaign in the past 10 years, as well.
But Perry has come alive in the playoffs. In 15 games, he has four goals and 11 points while providing exactly the type of pesky play that Ducks fans love and all opposition despises. And if he can make overtime magic once more this post-season, he’ll have himself a record, too.
Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators
Few gifted snipers had a season as trying as Ryan. A four-time 30-goal scorer while with the Anaheim Ducks, Ryan’s lamp-lighting has slowed in Ottawa, but he’s still been a consistent threat for 20 goals and a near-lock for 50 points each season since joining the Senators. This year, though, Ryan seemingly couldn’t find the score sheet if it was sitting right under his nose, and it led to the worst season of his career. In 62 games, he scored 13 goals and put up 25 points, slipping out of the top of the lineup and into a middling role for large portions of the season.
But that was Regular Season Bobby Ryan. Playoff Bobby Ryan has been an entirely different animal. In the opening round against Boston, Ryan was almost unstoppable. In six games, he scored four goals and seven points, including the game-winner in two straight outings, as the Senators shocked everyone by moving on. In the second round, Ryan wasn’t as impactful, but still posted two assists in six games and skated some big minutes against the New York Rangers. Ryan has fired up again in the Eastern Conference final, though. In Game 1, he had two points, including the overtime winner on a delightful breakaway backhand, and in Ottawa’s Game 3 shellacking of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan tacked on two assists to his total.
He now has five goals and 13 points in 15 games, putting him more than halfway to his regular season production in only a fraction of the games.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
Let’s try to look past what happened on Wednesday when Fleury was shelled for four goals on nine shots in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators. Instead, take a broader view of what Fleury has done this post-season. Before Wednesday’s loss, he had posted a 9-5 record, two shutouts, .931 save percentage and 2.32 goals-against average. He has helped to shut down the offenses of the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, the third- and sixth-best attacks in the regular season, and he has done all that behind a defense that is battered, bruised and missing their best player in Kris Letang.
There isn’t a playoff performance that has been more shocking than that of Fleury. It’s not to say he didn’t have this in him — he’s had other, more brief post-seasons where he has put up similar numbers — but the way things went for ‘The Flower’ during the regular season had him looking like he was ready to head out of Pittsburgh.
After having one of the best seasons of his career in 2015-16, Fleury started only 34 games in 2016-17 and posted an ugly .909 SP and 3.02 GAA to go along with an 18-10-7 record. It was Fleury’s worst single season performance in the past several years and one that had GM Jim Rutherford questioning whether or not the Penguins’ two-goalie system, with Fleury and youngster Matt Murray, could actually work this season.
Rutherford has to be remarkably thankful he kept Fleury throughout the campaign, though. He has faced more rubber and stopped more shots than any other netminder in the post-season, and while he might not be the only reason the Penguins are in the conference final, he’s certainly the biggest.
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