Who will capture our hearts with an unsung hero performance in the 2015 playoffs? We offer up 10 players to remember.
Chris Kontos. Claude Lemieux. Jean Sebastien-Giguere. Fernando Pisani. Bryan Bickell. Justin Williams. It seems every year some player saves his best hockey for the post-season and becomes his team’s surprise hero. Who has a chance to do the same this year?
I present 10 players to consider. Some are cogs in Cup-contending machines. Others are standout performers with potential to elevate underdog squads.
10. ANDERS LEE, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The multi-sport athlete flashed some special goal-scoring ability late last season, and he proved the effort was no fluke this year. Lee had 13 goals in 40 games before the all-star break and 12 in 38 games afterward. He showed he could score anywhere among the Isles’ top three lines, and his 6-foot-3, 227-pound frame makes him handy on the power play, too. He’s a deadly shooter who rifled at better than 12 percent last season and this season, and he produced six game-winning goals despite averaging a mere 14 minutes of ice time per game. This is the kind of player who steals playoff games in overtime.
9. ALEX GALCHENYUK, MONTREAL CANADIENS
With Max Pacioretty ruled out for at least Game 1 against Montreal, Galchenyuk, 21, has a golden opportunity to cement his role as a franchise pillar. The feisty two-way forward, who earned Ron Francis comparisons when drafted in 2012, has flashed star ability in fits and starts. He set career highs across the board this season with 20 goals and 46 points. ‘Chucky’ has three goals and six points in 10 playoff games already. so his speed and competitive streak suit him well to spring hockey.
8. BO HORVAT, VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Horvat has spent much of his rookie year on Vancouver’s fourth line, centering Jannik Hansen and Ronalds Kenins. But that group was among the best No. 4 units in the league, especially in the second half, scoring more than your typical bottom-six unit and changing the momentum of games with aggressive forechecking. Horvat’s sound two-way play and surprising face-off proficiency for his age should earn him a decent share of minutes in the post-season.
7. KRIS RUSSELL, CALGARY FLAMES
Remember when Mark Giordano’s injury was supposed to doom Calgary’s season? Russell played the best hockey of his career down the stretch in Giordano’s absence. Russell logged 25 or more minutes in 13 of Calgary’s last 20 games, even eclipsing 30 minutes a couple times, and set an NHL single-season record with 283 blocked shots. Second place this year in that category trailed him by 72. He’s become a heart-and-soul player for the Flames and figures to play a crucial role in any success they have.
6. NINO NIEDERREITER, MINNESOTA WILD
The Swiss power forward plays a heavy game, beautifully suited to the Western Conference’s gritty wars of attrition. ‘El Nino’ made waves in his playoff debut last spring, chipping in three goals and six points for the Wild. And, of course, he won Minnesota’s first-round series versus Colorado in overtime. Niederreiter seems like the type who will elevate his game every April for the rest of his career.
5. EVGENY KUZNETSOV, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
The slick Russian took a while adjusting to his first full NHL campaign, amassing four goals and 15 points in 44 games before the all-star break. After that? Seven goals and 22 points in 38 games. He had 13 points over 19 games in March and April. The uber-talented Kuznetsov was always supposed to improve like this, so there’s no reason to think he’s fluked into increased production. He centered the Caps’ top line over the final seven games of the season.
4. ONDREJ PAVELEC, WINNIPEG JETS
You won’t find someone who has slammed Pavelec, and the Jets for keeping him, more than I have over the past few years. But he’s gone from the league’s worst starter to a key reason why the Jets made the playoffs. He bounced back from a horrible long-shot goal against St. Louis March 10 to go 9-2-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average, .949 save percentage and four shutouts. He ended the season with three straight donuts. Considering Anaheim’s unstable goaltending situation, Pavelec could carry Winnipeg to a first-round upset if he can maintain his piping-hot play.
3. MARK STONE, OTTAWA SENATORS
Andrew Hammond deserves most of the credit for propelling Ottawa to an unlikely playoff berth. But could the Sens have done it without Stone’s second-half surge? In 46 games from Jan. 1 on, Stone had 18 goals and 47 points. He produced like one of the NHL’s elite. Should Ottawa carry its world-beater mentality into a series victory over Montreal, Stone will be at the forefront and all over the scoresheet.
2. PATRICK SHARP, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The 2014-15 season has been Sharp’s worst in a Blackhawks uniform, no doubt. His 0.63 points per game marked his worst production since the 2006-07 season, when the modern incarnation of the Hawks wasn’t a playoff team yet. Trade rumors swirled, as did rumors of him causing trouble in the dressing room. True or not, the scuttlebutt coincided with a bad year for Sharp. But it’s not too late for redemption. Sharp scored 10 goals in his first 57 games but ended with six in 11. Chicago’s roster is so deep and talented that Sharp can produce on any line, and he still plays the point on the power play from time to time. He’s exiting his prime but more than talented enough to pull some spring magic.
1. KEVIN HAYES, NEW YORK RANGERS
Watching Hayes impersonate teammate Chris Kreider down the stretch made me think, “when Hayes gets a head of steam, opponents just don’t have an answer for him.” The dynamite college free agent signee almost doubled his production pre- and post-all-star break. He’s extremely tough to impede thanks to his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame. He’s flourished as the Rangers’ third-line center, showing not just scoring ability but also defensive responsibility. With Martin St-Louis and Car Hagelin on Hayes’ wings, he centers one of the fastest all-around lines in hockey. Hayes was an X-factor for the Rangers during their Presidents’ Trophy push and should be in the playoffs, too. Think Jordan Staal on the 2009 Penguins.
Bonus pick: JONATHAN DROUIN, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The elite prospect went largely unnoticed this season because Tampa Bay had such a productive top two lines, and he didn’t play on either. But the No. 1 unit with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan has rotated left wingers of late, from Valtteri Filppula to Alex Killorn to Drouin. We have Tampa slated to go all the way, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the fresh Drouin get a look on the Stamkos line again at some point. Drouin’s talent bubbles beneath the surface. It’s only a matter of time before he explodes.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin