Winning is hard in the playoffs. It requires contributions from up and down a lineup. Everyone has to be going; all lines have to be firing. You can’t take a shift off. If a hockey writer has used the cliché, it applies in the playoffs.
Perhaps the biggest cliché in the playoffs: your best players must be your best players. The following seven stars – who represent four playoff teams – have yet to reach the level required. Three of their teams now face elimination.
Each must be better to make their team’s Stanley Cup aspirations come to fruition this spring.
A Pair of Aces in Vegas-Minnesota
The Vegas-Minnesota series has had a little bit of everything: scoring, defense, goaltending, an overtime, and some good old-fashioned goalie interference controversies. And to this point, Vegas-Minnesota is the only series guaranteed to have what every great series needs – a seventh game. The only thing it lacks is contributions from a pair of ace wingers, Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault and Minnesota’s Mats Zuccarello.
Zuccarello paces the pair with two assists in six games. Marchessault has one goal in those six contests. As the series heads for its seventh and deciding game, each will have a hand in deciding who moves forward.
Marchessault has been a consistent playoff stud since becoming one of the original Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18. Before the 2021 playoffs, he had 37 points in 47 playoff games in the Battle Born State. He was second, behind current linemate Reilly Smith, in team playoff scoring during Vegas’ 2018 run to the Cup final. But this year, he’s struggled to produce with his usual efficacy. His lone goal was a big one, coming just 18 seconds after Matt Dumba gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead in Game 2. Since then, Marchessault has generated little. The normally dangerous Marchessault has an on-ice high-danger Corsi-for of just 8.2 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in the playoffs. That ranks 131st among 215 playoff forwards. Minnesota plays a game centered around limiting the quality of shot attempts, but there are no excuses for Marchessault. He will have to break through that stingy defense to send the Knights to the second round.
Zuccarello’s isn’t a name that immediately jumps off the page as a superstar talent, but he’s compensated at a level where he needs to produce in the big-time. Zuccarello signed a five-year, $30-million pact with the Wild on July 1, 2019, and has a modified no-trade clause. He skates primarily on a line with Ryan Hartman and freshman stud Kirill Kaprizov, though Victor Rask replaced Hartman in Games 5 and 6. Things are starting to trend in the right direction for the diminutive Norwegian right winger, as his two assists came in the past two games. As was the case with Marchessault, his first point came at the opportune time; Zuccarello’s first apple came less than a minute after Mark Stone gave Vegas a 1-0 lead in Game 5.
In his career, Zuccarello has 45 points in 83 playoff games. He’s Minnesota’s highest-paid forward who’s consistently in the lineup and plays with their most electrifying talent in ages; he must find a way to produce in Game 7.
Nazem Kadri – Colorado Avalanche
Kadri makes this list for a different reason than its other members. The 30-year-old pivot has been a consistent contributor for the Avs since coming to the Mile High City in July 2019. Kadri has 30 goals and 68 points in 107 regular-season games in his two seasons in Colorado.
And he massively stepped up his game during the post-season last year and played an essential role in getting the Avalanche to within a game of the Western Conference final. Kadri finished the 2020 playoffs third in team scoring, with nine goals and 18 points in 15 games (the tune-up games Colorado played during the play-in round count toward these totals). That performance was by far the best of Kadri’s playoff career, in no small part because it was also by far the lengthiest playoff run of his career.
Before the Edmonton bubble, Kadri had 10 points in 19 career post-season contests, all of which came as a Toronto Maple Leaf. That’s good for 0.53 points per game, moderately below his career regular-season average of 0.64. On the other hand, the 18 points in 15 games (1.2 PPG) he put up with Colorado last year nearly doubled his career regular-season points-per-game mark. Several factors sparked Kadri's offensive explosion, including playing on a star-studded Avalanche roster. But beyond that, Kadri was finally able to stay in a post-season lineup consistently. And that played the biggest role.
Therein lies the rub. Kadri was absent from the lineup for eight of the 27 games he could have played in the playoffs during his tenure with the Leafs. That absence spawned from two separate suspensions Kadri earned against Boston in consecutive post-seasons. When a star player’s on-ice conduct removes him from nearly 30 percent of a team’s biggest games, it’s going to be a problem. Now, it wasn’t a problem last year for Kadri, who kept his nose clean in his first playoff year with Colorado. But this year, in Game 2 against the Blues, Kadri struck again with an illegal check to the head of Blues defenseman Justin Faulk. It earned Kadri an 8-game suspension, which he’s currently appealing. If it’s upheld, Kadri will miss six more games. Those could be six ultra-important games in the second round against a very good Minnesota or Vegas team.
Another sports cliché: the best ability is availability. Kadri’s got all the ability in the world to be an effective player when he’s on the ice. Kadri can score, get opponents off their games and energize his teammates. But he needs to be on the ice to be effective. His reckless conduct has cost his teams before. And it could cost his team again this year as Colorado challenges for the Cup. He needs to step up and stay on the ice.
The Montreal Canadiens’ Stars
Simply put, Montreal hasn’t gotten enough out of their studs so far. The Habs, to be fair, are a team defined by the sum of its parts. But Montreal still has players who are relied upon to be the producers when the going gets tough. And the going is plenty tough right now.
Brendan Gallagher has a reasonable explanation for his lack of production. The guy missed Montreal's final 21 regular-season games with a broken thumb. He played just one AHL warmup game before being thrown back into the ringer. But legitimate excuse or not, Gallagher must be the straw to stir the drink in Montreal, or they’re dead in the water. He’s yet to score a point and ranks 80th among 215 forwards in producing high-danger chances in the playoffs.
Gallagher isn't alone, though. Jeff Petry and captain Shea Weber, Montreal’s highly paid rearguards, each have yet to score a point. The pair take up 16.4 percent of Montreal’s cap space. That rises to 17.3 percent next year with Petry set for a $750,000 raise against a flat cap. Weber’s on-ice HDCF/60 of 7.49 ranks him 79 among 110 playoff defensemen. Petry is better, ranking in the top half of D-men, but is yet to see his chances yield any results.
Finally, Josh Anderson, who started the regular season blazing hot, with nine goals and 11 points in 13 games, has been quiet in the post-season. He scored the first goal of this series but has been pointless thereafter.
The Habs need someone – anyone – to step up if they hope to take the series back to Montreal.
(All Corsi stats in article via naturalstattrick.com)