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Surprising stars: reliving unsung heroes of the NHL playoffs

Ruslan Fedotenko may have never been a big-time scorer in the NHL, but nobody will forget just how good he was during the 2004 Stanley Cup playoffs. Let's look at some of the best underdog performances in post-season history.

Remember the "History Will Be Made" commercials the NHL put out to promote the playoffs? You have to admit, that was a creative marketing campaign. And while they might have been cheesy, at least they were accurate. Teams don’t play for regular-season records, and while a scoring title is nice, the big silver trophy we call the Stanley Cup is most desirable. Thus, it's the players who show up at the most important time of the year who become the real heroes each season.

The two-month expedition is a grind, and only one franchise is rewarded in the end. It gets emotional, physical, and it’s easily the best time of the year – unless your team is eliminated in heartbreaking fashion. The playoffs provide a great platform for stars to shine. Nobody will forget Mark Messier lifting the Stanley Cup in 1994 after guaranteeing that the Rangers would win earlier in the spring. Bobby Orr's diving goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970 will be ingrained in the memories of all hockey fans for the rest of time. And among his many incredible performances, nobody could stop Wayne Gretzky's 47-point effort during the 1985 playoffs.

But what about the guys who rise from the depths of the lineup to lead their team to a victory? In pressure-packed situations, it’s sometimes the players you least expect that rise to the occasion. Fans love a good underdog story, and watching a fourth-line grinder come up big is exhilarating, especially if they've been untested and are finally given the chance to put on a show. Here are some of the most notable unsung playoff heroes in NHL history:

John Druce, Washington Capitals (1990)
Druce wasn't a major point producer during his 10-year NHL career, scoring 113 goals and 239 points in 531 games, but he's often brought up whenever someone has a breakthrough playoff performance due to his 17 points in 15 games during the 1990 playoffs, which came on the heels of 11 points in 45 games during the regular season. Druce's offensive outburst came as the result of a promotion to the top line alongside Dale Hunter and Geoff Courtnall, which was the result of a knee injury sidelining Dino Ciccarelli. With just 26 points in his first 93 games prior to getting his big shot, Druce didn't seem like an ideal choice to fill in, but he exploded for 14 goals in those playoffs, establishing a Capitals record that stood until Alex Ovechkin led the post-season with 15 tallies last year. Caps fans were pleasantly surprised with Druce's four game-winning goals, too, which helped the team advance to the conference final for the first time in franchise history. He had just two points the following pre-season and only had six points in his next 36 playoff games before retiring in 1999-00 after a stint in the German League.

Matthew Barnaby, Buffalo Sabres (1998)
Barnaby always had some offensive flair in his game – he did score more than a point-per-game in 180 QMJHL contests – but nobody expected his 13-point playoff run in 15 games 1998. Barnaby finished the regular season with five goals, 25 points and 289 penalty minutes, a big step down offensively from his 19-goal, 43-point campaign the year prior. Something clicked offensively in the post-season, though, as he had a point in all five of Buffalo's first-round games against the Philadelphia Flyers, was one of two players during the '98 post-season to record a hat-trick (Daniel Alfredsson had two) when he scored three in a 6-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the second round and notched a pair against Washington in the conference final. Barnaby's two tallies were too little, too late, however, as the Sabres fell 4-2 to the Capitals in the third round. He never managed to have a playoff run like that again, recording just four assists in 34 playoff games with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche in the years that followed. However, he did have 30-plus point campaigns with the New York Rangers in 2002-03 and 2003-04.

Ruslan Fedotenko, Tampa Bay Lighting (2004)
Fedotenko was an underdog. He was never drafted, spent crucial development years playing in his native Ukraine and wasn't much of an offensive threat during his 12-year NHL career. But nobody will forget his performance during Tampa;s Stanley Cup run in 2004, when he finished with 14 points in 22 games in his second post-season with the club. What made his run especially strange was his 12-goal output, largely because he had only 17 tallies in 77 regular season games that season yet finished one goal behind Jarome Iginla for the playoff lead. Fedotenko's run was highlighted by a two-goal effort in Game 7 that helped clinch Tampa's first championship. The playoff run was out of character for Fedotenko, who only had nine goals over his next six post-seasons (seven of them coming in 2009 with the Penguins), but who cares. He has two Cup rings and is the only Ukrainian to win hockey's the top trophy.

Fernando Pisani, Edmonton Oilers (2006)
The 2006 final was one of the most exciting in recent history, with both Carolina and Edmonton using backup goalies (and in Edmonton's case, its third goalie) to battle it out until the end. One of the stars of the playoffs that year was Pisani, perhaps one of the unlikeliest players to ever lead the league in post-season goals. Fourteen of his 15 career playoff goals came during the run that saw the Oilers fall short in Game 7, with the Hurricanes riding an incredible playoff effort from Cam Ward to its only Cup. Pisani's goal production came out of nowhere, too: he had only 18 goals in the regular season, a career high, and had scored just 43 goals in 197 career regular season and playoff games to that point. Pisani scored big goals on that run, including two third-period goals to clinch the opening-round series against Detroit and a shorthanded goal in overtime of Game 5 of the final. He later scored the Oilers' only goal in Game 7, this before getting stoned by Ward late in the contest. Pisani only played three playoff games after the 2006 post-season, all three coming in his final season with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011. Oilers fans will never forget their hero for what he did in 2006.

Travis Moen, Anaheim Ducks (2007)
Moen’s 2007 playoffs was the definition of clutch. In the Western Conference semifinal, Moen helped the Ducks take a 3-1 series lead after scoring the game-winning goal against Vancouver, only to do the same thing in the first game of the Cup final against Ottawa. And while it was actually Senators defensemen Chris Phillips who would put the puck past goaltender Ray Emery, Moen was credited with scoring the championship-clinching goal, too. In the end, Moen had 12 points en route to Anaheim’s only Stanley Cup victory, which is impressive considering he had just seven points in 62 playoff games throughout the rest of his career. Moen's playoff run capped off the best season of his career, as he scored 21 points during the regular season. He failed to reach the 20-point plateau again in the final nine years of his career.

Ville Leino, Philadelphia Flyers (2010)
The 2010 Stanley Cup final was strange, to say the least. A bizarre goal to win it all, below-average goaltending by two inexperienced netminders and much of the focus was on Chris Pronger stealing pucks. Leino was a prized acquisition by the Detroit Red Wings in 2008-09 after dominating the Finnish Liiga, but after a tough 2009-10 season that saw him post just seven points in 42 games, he was traded to Philadelphia for a fresh start. In 13 games with the Flyers during the regular season, Leino managed only four points and found himself without a spot in the lineup heading into the playoffs, instead starting the second season in the the press box. His break came when injuries felled Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. Playing alongside Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell, Leino had 21 points in 19 games to lead all rookies in goals (seven), assists (14) and points (21), tying Dino Ciccarelli for most points by a freshman in a single playoffs. Leino recorded a career-high 53 points with the Flyers the following season, but his career derailed shortly thereafter. He failed to score in 58 games with the Sabres in 2013-14 and eventually retired in 2017 after spending the final three years of his career in Europe.

Nick Bonino, Pittsburgh Penguins (2016)
Bonino’s known as a solid two-way center that does a lot of things right further down the lineup. He did post 49 points in 2013-14 with Anaheim, but he hasn't broken 40 points since. Bonino struck gold during Pittsburgh's Cup effort in 2016, tallying four goals and 18 points in 24 games for the champions while leading the team with 14 assists. Prior to 2016, Bonino had only recorded 15 points in 26 playoff games over three years with Anaheim and Vancouver, but he found chemistry with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin, the trio combining for 56 post-season points. In Game 6 of the second round against Washington, Bonino scored on a rebound in overtime to send the Pens to the Eastern final, where’s they would dismantle the Tampa Bay before topping the San Jose Sharks in the final. Bonino, now with the Nashville Predators, won the Cup again with Pittsburgh the following year, but his offensive contributions were rather limited. He has 12 points in 34 games over the past two playoffs.


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