Every year in the post-season, a handful of NHLers elevate their game to the next level. These players aren’t always the stars or leaders on their respective squads, but they have a vital impact on the ice.
During last year’s Stanley Cup final, Western Conference talents Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith played like the stars they are en route to the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Cup. But had role players such as Bryan Bickell, Michal Handzus and Johnny Oduya not stepped up their game, the Blackhawks might not have defeated the Bruins.
With that in mind, here’s one skater from each Western Conference playoff team who could up the ante and help lead his team past the first round and deep into the playoffs, en route to potentially hoisting one of the most coveted trophies in pro sports.
A force since mid-March, the 25-year-old winger has taken full advantage of his increased ice time. With 15 points in his last 18 games, Maroon can be counted on for more than just physical play. Even though his point totals have increased lately, that doesn’t mean he stopped taking the body. At six-foot-three and 230 pounds, Maroon is a handful to deal with in the corners and especially in front of the net. He goes into the dirty areas and is effective there.
Honourable mention: Hampus Lindholm. The Swedish rookie is a remarkable plus-29 and often playing against the opposition’s top line.
The talented crop of young forwards, plus Vezina contender Semyon Varlamov, get the bulk of attention in Colorado, but some have forgotten how seriously talented Johnson is. The 2006 first-overall pick had his stock drop significantly around the time he was dealt from St. Louis to the Avs, but this season he's playing better than ever. With terrific hockey sense and puck skills for a big man, Johnson has acclimatized well to Patrick Roy’s system -- as has most of the team. He plays alongside Jan Hejda as part of one of the most underrated defensive pairs in the league.
Honourable mention: Jamie McGinn. The winger is having a career year and will be a valuable presence on the penalty kill.
The Czech grinder is one of the more underrated talents in the entire league and an unsung hero on a deep roster like the one the Blues put onto the ice. One of his only faults is that he’s injury prone due to the nature of his style. He is difficult to knock off the puck, terrific in the face-off circle, and tougher than he looks. Playoff hockey suits Sobotka perfectly. If he's healthy, he'll be a key piece to any success the Blues have.
Honourable mention: Jaden Schwartz was a team-high plus-28 and will be counted on to produce, especially considering the Blues are banged up.
The Sharks are at their best when the most versatile member of their squad is playing well, which has been the case in most games since the Olympic break. Burns complements Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski nicely, and when the Sharks have possession in the offensive zone, they’re one of the most dominant lines in the NHL. Burns hasn’t done well thus far in his playoff career, so he’ll be motivated to change that.
Honourable mention: Justin Braun. Doesn’t put up flashy numbers but is a stalwart on the blue line.
The Lethbridge, Alta., native has fit in nicely since being reacquired by the Blackhawks early in the season. His creativity with the puck can get him in trouble, but it also keeps defenders on their heels. Versteeg helped the team win the Cup in 2009-10 and hopes to repeat history by adding a secondary scoring punch.
Honourable mention: Jeremy Morin. The young winger has been on fire lately, closing out the regular season with seven points in his final seven games.
Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov aren't the only Kings defencemen with an offensive touch. Martinez is coming into his own in the second half of the season. He makes the most of any power-play time he gets and is able to squeak pucks through from the blue line, which has led to him averaging close to a point per game since March 1. Having a defensive partner like Willie Mitchell has been great for his development.
Honourable mention: Dwight King. Always ramps up the intensity come playoff time. Loves finishing his checks, and this post-season hopes to chip in with more offence.
Ryan Suter is the man, but Brodin is darn good too -- and fun to watch. The 20-year-old Swede is reliable at both ends of the ice and an emerging star in the league. He chews up minutes, including a bunch on the penalty kill.
Honourable mention: Matt Cooke. He’s still pesky but has limited the cheap shot significantly. Has nice chemistry with Kyle Brodziak.
Playing alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn can do wonders for your game, and the Russian rookie has done well on the top line. His offensive output dipped late in the season, but he’s got the skill to make veterans look silly at times. It will be interesting to see how the teen handles the physical intensity that comes with the first round.
Honourable mention: Ryan Garbutt. He’ll be a catalyst for energy.