Stanley Cup playoff sleepers: Eastern Conference

Reilly Smith (right) has had a terrific season and could break through for the Bruins in the playoffs. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

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, Bruins stars David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara played like the talents they are, and Boston nearly ended up with a a second Cup in three years. In addition, role players like Nathan Horton, Johnny Boychuk and Gregory Campbell stepped up their games and played their part. Had they not, the Bruins might not have advance to the championship series at all.

With that in mind, here’s one skater from each Eastern Conference playoff team who could up the ante and help lead his team past the first round and deep into the playoffs this season, en route to potentially hoisting one of the most coveted trophies in pro sports.

Reilly Smith
Acquired as part of the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to the Stars, Smith has been outstanding for the Bruins this season. If he didn’t do the little things right, Claude Julien wouldn’t play him on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, with whom he should thrive with these playoffs.

Honourable mention: Torey Krug. Was excellent last year in the in the playoffs, where he saw his first real NHL action. He has continued that momentum this season.

Paul Martin
Numbers don’t illustrate just how important Martin is to the Penguins’ back end. The American Olympian is a calming presence on the blue line who plays more minutes than any other Penguin. That Martin (broken hand) and Kris Letang (stroke) are back for the Pens after extend layoffs takes worlds of pressure off the likes of rookie Olli Maatta.

Honourable Mention: Jussi Jokinen. Super effective with his ice time, netting 57 points while averaging slightly more than 15 minutes per game.

Ondrej Palat
You can’t say “Ondrej Palat who?” any longer. He was only four points back of Nathan MacKinnon for the rookie scoring title, and his plus-32 was seventh best in the entire league. With 25 points in 23 games since the Olympic break, the 208th-overall pick in the 2011 draft is rolling. He should give first-round opponent Montreal fits, just like he did in a two-assist effort on April 1.

Honourable mention: Tyler Johnson. Palat’s linemate set a new team record for goals by a rookie. He and Palat will be called upon to continue their strong play alongside Steven Stamkos, the third member of the best young line in hockey.

David Desharnais
The diminutive centre quietly enjoyed his best year as a pro and has the type of playing style that bodes well in the post-season. He’s gritty, strong on the forecheck, and can pitch in offensively. Oh, yes, and he’s playing on a line with Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty.

Honourable mention: Branden Gallagher. He’ll provide energy, aggravate opponents, and help out Tomas Plekanec on what should be the Habs’ shutdown line.

Dan Girardi
Your shins, feet, forearms and thighs will hurt just from watching all the shots the Welland, Ont., native will block in the playoffs. Girardi and partner Ryan McDonagh have developed into one of the top pairs in the league. While McDonagh is prone to join the rush, Girardi is a defence-first blue-liner.

Honourable mention: Brian Boyle. Has been an impact player for the Rangers in the last two post-seasons. Nothing should change on that front.

Sean Couturier
We hear all the praise centres like Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews generate for their defensive ability, and we might soon start to hear Couturier’s name in the same conversation. He is becoming an elite shutdown man.

Honourable mention: Andrew MacDonald. Let’s see if he can live up to the six-year, $30-million deal he just signed.

Danny DeKeyser
The Western Michigan standout was given the night off in the final regular-season game, which shows you how important the Red Wings believe he is. They chose not to risk his health because they need him against Boston. He was huge for Detroit down the stretch, especially with Jonathan Ericsson shelved with a broken finger.

Honourable mention: Riley Sheahan. Plays well with Gustav Nyquist. Finished the season on a three-game goal scoring streak.

Brandon Dubinsky
When the Blue Jackets traded Rick Nash, they needed to ensure they got someone back who could play physical and lead by example. Dubinsky fit that bill. As long as he doesn’t cross the line and stays out of the penalty box — he only took six minor penalties after the Olympic break — the American can be a difference-maker. He and Cam Atkinson have developed a solid rapport.

Honourable mention: Mark Letestu. Solid face-off man and kills important penalties.

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