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 Western 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.
Eastern Conference playoff sleepers
The pressure Stalberg’s speed puts on opposing defenders will pay dividends in a long playoff series. Whether he primarily skates on the third line with Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell, or he receives time playing with the likes of Jonathan Towes or Patrick Kane on the top two units, Stalberg can contribute.
He is a streaky point-getter and he went scoreless in his final four regular-season games, despite playing solid defensively. He’ll be looking to get his name back on the score sheet. He fires the puck at the net often, with 113 shots in 47 games, and that can lead to goals and scoring chances generated from rebounds.
Honourable mention: Michal Rozsival – Playing on a pair with fellow veteran Johnny Oduya (the two are a combined plus-30 this season), Rozsival will give the Blackhawks 20 minutes of hard-nosed hockey every night, plus some time on the top power-play unit.
All year Cogliano has flown under the radar, but he had an impressive 13 goals this season — only Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry had more on the Ducks, with 15 each. The former Edmonton Oiler, who has never missed a game in his six-year NHL career, will get his first taste of the postseason. He’s got a good rapport with Daniel Winnik when they play on the same line, so look for that duo to supply secondary scoring to the Ducks’ big three of Getzlaf, Perry and Bobby Ryan.
Honourable mention: David Steckel – He may only see about 10 minutes of ice per game, but the former Maple Leaf is fantastic in the face-off circle and will be counted on for key draws in the defensive zone and in important situations.
A slow start to the season – two points in the first 15 games – had Canucks fans worried after Garrison signed a six-year, $27.6 million contract as a free agent in the summer. His game rounded out midway through the season and he finished the regular season with a plus-18 rating, good for second best among NHL defencemen. He and Dan Hamhuis, who led the Canucks’ blue-liners in points with 24, have been one of the steadiest pairs in the league, registering nearly 28 shifts per game. Of late, Garrison has also been getting a fair amount of power-play time.
Honourable mention: Maxim Lapierre – One of the best agitators in the game and that skill, annoying as it may be for opposing players, can come in handy in the playoffs, especially when it draws penalties.
On a team that doesn’t always need to score a lot of goals – the Blues tied for fifth in fewest goals allowed and had seven shutouts – Bergland managed to hit the twine 17 times this campaign. The line of Berglund, David Perron and rookie Vladimir Tarasenko is supremely skilled and their puck movement can cause fits in the offensive zone. On a team with such balanced scoring, Bergland could take some pressure off the likes of Chris Stewart and Alex Steen if he can bury at the same rate he did during the regular season.
Honourable mention: Barret Jackman – Not much playoff experience in his 11-year NHL career, playing in just 21 postseason games, but his veteran leadership and rugged physical play will have a positive impact on a stacked blue line.
Last year’s Stanley Cup run has prepared the young Russian for what lies ahead. Voynov led Kings defencemen in scoring and although franchise defender Drew Doughty gets the bulk of media attention, Voynov actually put up better numbers this year. He also had four points and was plus-5 in three games against first-round opponent St. Louis this season.
Honourable mention: Robyn Regehr – Since being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on April 1, the veteran has looked steady playing alongside Doughty.
Versatility is such a useful trait come playoff time and Brent Burns may just be the most versatile player in the league with the ability to play either forward or defence at a high level. He’s been playing up front for the Sharks and the combo of his size, skill and booming shot means he’s a threat anytime he’s on the ice. His experience playing on the back end results in him being defensively conscious as well.
Honourable mention: TJ Galiardi – The 25-year-old developed solid chemistry on a line with Burns and Joe Thornton during the last two weeks of the regular season.
The skilled Swiss forward started off on such a hot streak for the Wings, scoring 10 times and adding six assists in his first 19 games. Lately, though, he has primarily played on a line with Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson, which gives Detroit an interesting new look up front. Prior to joining the NHL this past off-season, Brunner played well in the post-season with Zug in the Swiss league, registering 37 points in 40 playoff games since 2009.
Honourable mention: Jordin Tootoo – When the Red Wings need a boost of energy, Tootoo will be there to provide it.
The amount of success the Wild have in these playoffs will likely depend on how well the team’s leaders like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and goalie Niklas Backstrom fair, but players like Cullen will also play a key role. The centre has Stanley Cup experience, winning with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, and led the Wild with a plus-9 rating.
Honourable mention: Clayton Stoner – The big defenceman’s physical play will be relied on when opposing forwards are on the forecheck.