NHL playoff sleepers: Eastern Conference

From left: Derick Brassard, Lars Eller, Cory Conacher, Cody Franson, Brandon Sutter.
April 29, 2013, 1:39 PM

In every NHL postseason, there are always players that elevate their game to the next level. Often these players aren’t the stars or big-name players on their respective squads.

Take last year’s Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings for example. Yes, their top forward Anze Kopitar, captain Dustin Brown and star blue-liner Drew Doughty had great numbers, but that was expected.

However, players like Dwight King, Trevor Lewis and Matt Greene stepped up their play and provided valuable depth, without which the Kings might not have been crowned champs.

So with that, here’s one skater from each Eastern Conference playoff team that could be one of these dark-horse guys that helps lead their team past the first round and deep into the postseason, en route to possibly hoisting Lord Stanley.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Brandon Sutter

When the Penguins made their Stanley Cup run in 2008-09, Jordan Staal played an integral part as the third-line centre. This year Sutter – who ironically was traded for Staal in the off-season – will fill that role. Solid two-way play, penalty killing, shot-blocking and forechecking often gets overlooked in the regular season, but it goes a long way in the playoffs.

Honourable mention: Jussi Jokinen – Since being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes on trade deadline day, the Finnish forward has chipped in with timely secondary scoring.

Montreal Canadiens

Lars Eller

Eller has been on fire of late with nine points in his last seven games. Playing on a line with Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk could result in some big numbers in the postseason, as the trio is one of the hottest lines in hockey right now. He did, however, only have one point in four outings against first-round opponent Ottawa this season.

Honourable mention: Brendan Gallagher – One of the leading contenders for the Calder Memorial Trophy, Gallagher has a knack for getting in scoring position and getting under the skin of his opponents.

Washington Capitals

Joel Ward

The undrafted North York, Ont., native has been one of the most underrated and consistent third liners in the league the last five years. Ward typically raises his game in the postseason, registering 22 points in 32 NHL playoff games, including scoring the winning goal in overtime in Game 7 of the first round last year to eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins.

Honourable mention: Steve Oleksy – The journeyman finally has found a home in the NHL with the Capitals, and if things get physical, Oleksy won’t back down.

Boston Bruins

Dennis Seidenberg

While most of the pressure on the Bruins’ blue line will be placed on the shoulders of Zdeno Chara, on some nights Seidenberg is just as valuable as the 6’9” captain. The solid puck-mover had a two-point effort in the final regular-season game, and since being dealt to the Bruins by the Florida Panthers in 2010 he has quietly become one of the better defencemen in the NHL.

Honourable mention: Shawn Thornton – One of the few heavyweight enforcers in the league that can provide positive play in other aspects of the game.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Cody Franson

Franson quietly finished fourth on the Leafs in scoring with 29 points, tying a career high despite the shortened season. Playing alongside Mark Fraser, who led the team in plus/minus, and chipping in on the power play led to him being one of the most effective Leafs this season. His long reach makes him a difficult matchup for opposing forwards in the Leafs’ end, plus he can eat up between 20 to 25 minutes a night and doesn’t take stupid penalties.

Honourable mention: Jay McClement – Was the Leafs best off-season acquisition, providing veteran leadership and solid defensive play. And if there’s an empty net, look out, the veteran centre had three empty net goals this season.

New York Rangers

Derick Brassard

Since being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline, Brassard has played like a man possessed at times and provided valuable offence. Playing alongside fellow new addition Ryane Clowe, Brassard won’t be intimidated physically either. A lot will be expected from the likes of Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan, but Brassard has been playing so well that it will take some pressure off the Rangers’ top forwards.

Honourable mention: Dan Girardi – A defence-first, shot-blocking machine whose style is best suited for gritty postseason play.

Ottawa Senators

Cory Conacher

Conacher burst onto the scene this season with a whopping 12 points in his first seven NHL games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. His numbers eventually calmed down, but since getting traded to the Sens in exchange for goalie Ben Bishop on April 3, Conacher has fit in nicely in Ottawa. He has developed some solid chemistry with Mika Zibanejad, so look for that to continue in the first round versus Montreal.

Honourable mention: Jared Cowen – Has been a steady force on the blue line since unexpectedly returning from a long layoff after hip surgery.

New York Islanders

Frans Nielsen

While the major reason why the Islanders qualified for the playoffs is play of their top line – John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes — Nielsen provided secondary scoring all season. The Danish forward had 29 points this year, four of which came against the Penguins, whom the Islanders meet in the first round.

Honourable mention: Casey Cizikas – Can provide bursts of energy, especially with his aggressive forecheck. Had successful OHL playoff runs with the Mississauga St. Michaels Majors in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and was a valuable member of Team Canada at world junior hockey championships in 2011.

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