As we noted yesterday — and as is tradition — the post-season has thus far had its share of role players stepping up at the right time to become difference-makers.
From Kevin Fiala to Jake DeBrusk, there have been a few unexpected heroes in the early going this post-season. But the reason why the role players have had to step up and deliver in big moments is because, in a few instances, those top-six scorers, stud defensemen or brick-wall keepers that were expected to deliver at this time of year haven’t yet played to their full potential. That’s not to say they can’t, mind you, but through the early portion of the second round, we’re still waiting for that one game- or series-changing outing from a few notable names.
So, which players have yet to provide the post-season magic we were waiting to see? Here are five who stand out because they haven’t stood out thus far:
Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
The leading rookie goal-scorer during the regular season, Connor lit the lamp 31 times and turned himself into yet another weapon in the Jets’ arsenal. And while the playoffs are a different animal altogether, meaning another level of play to which a freshman will need to adjust, Connor hasn’t provided all that much offense, all things considered. Through seven games, he has just three points, none of which are goals. Worse yet, only one of those points is of the primary variety, that assist coming in Winnipeg’s Game 4 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
This isn’t to say Connor hasn’t had the opportunities to make some noise, though. He has 15 shots on goal, slightly more than two per game, which is good enough for fifth among all Jets skaters. He’s earned himself some quality looks, as well, with 18 scoring chances and 10 from high-danger areas at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. Winnipeg would sure love to see the dam break for Connor sooner rather than later, however, because any advantage they can get over the Nashville Predators will be a big one.
Derick Brassard, Pittsburgh Penguins
The acquisition of Brassard ahead of the trade deadline was seen as another one of those shrewd moves by Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford that had potential to put the Penguins back in the winner’s circle for a third consecutive season. Brassard was a steady second-line center who would be used in third-line duty in Pittsburgh, but better than that, he was a proven playoff performer. Across 78 post-season appearances, Brassard had 22 goals and 55 points. It seemed like a perfect fit.
Unfortunately, Brassard hasn’t quite hit his stride with the Penguins. In fact, ice time was hard to come by at times for the 30-year-old. Despite the injury to Evgeni Malkin that has kept the superstar pivot out of Games 1 and 2 against the rival Capitals, Brassard has averaged roughly 14 minutes per game to start the series against Washington, finishing seventh among Penguins forwards in both games. Granted, he hasn’t given coach Mike Sullivan much reason to change his mind. Brassard has just one goal and three points in eight games, with nothing doing in either game against the Capitals.
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
Rask wasn’t selected as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he earned a vote here or there. Maybe his stat line isn’t as incredibly impressive as that of Pekka Rinne or Connor Hellebuyck or Andrei Vasilevskiy, but you would have been hard-pressed to find a more reliable keeper in the back half of the season. That’s not to mention he put up a rock-solid .924 save percentage at even strength during the campaign.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, Rask’s stand-on-his-head performances are starting to feel as though they’ve been left behind in the regular season. It would be fair to say that Rask hasn’t really “stolen” a game at all throughout these playoffs, instead only shining in games Boston has been able to win handily. His overall .905 SP backs that up, too. He’s had two starts with a SP below .850, as well, and if he doesn’t start finding some consistency, the Bruins are going to have to win games in spite of their goaltending.
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Hedman earned his spot as a finalist for the Norris Trophy for three major reasons: because of his remarkable offensive production, because he was a premier shutdown defender for the duration of the campaign and because he was an animal when it came to ice time, skating monster minutes on the Tampa Bay blueline. The post-season has seen the latter continue, to be sure, with Hedman averaging 26 minutes per game through the Lightning’s first seven games. But the two former aspects haven’t been quite as evident.
Let’s start with the offense, where Hedman, who scored 17 goals and 63 points in 77 games during the regular season, has only managed to produce two points, both of which are assists. Again, like Connor, it’s not for lack of trying: Hedman has 17 shots on goal and a handful of legitimate scoring opportunities. It’s just that, simply put, he hasn’t been able to bury. Complicating matters, however, is that while he’s won the possession battle across the first two rounds, he only has an on-ice goals for percentage of 50 percent. That’s down 10 percent from his regular season mark. Of course, there’s still plenty of time to turn that around.
Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
Rinne has been a finalist for the Vezina three times prior to this season, and his candidacy this time makes it a fourth. The difference this season, however, is that his performance makes him the clear-cut favorite to take the hardware. If you’ve only turned in for the post-season, though, you might not know that.
Rinne has had his outings here and there — Games 4 through 6 against the Avalanche stand out — but it could well be argued that he hasn’t yet had one brilliant performance that stole the show. Even his Game 2 performance against the Jets in which he stopped 46 of 50 shots saw him first give up at least two goals that most would have expected him to stop. It’s been a far cry from his 2016-17 playoff showing when he posted a .935 SP or better in 15 of 22 games. It’s also been a far cry from his performance during the campaign, because heading into Game 3, one of the NHL’s regular season SP leaders finds himself with the worst SP mark of any starting goaltender left standing in the playoffs.
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