Dark horses who need to be great in Stanley Cup Playoffs for their teams to succeed

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stops Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares as defenseman Victor Hedman moves in during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP)

Everyone knows the names of the players being counted to come up big in the playoffs for their teams to be successful. Goalie, leading scorer, tough defenceman. Those guys are paid the big bucks to perform on the big stage.

But when you scroll down on the team’s scoring leaders, some players who were outside the spotlight this season could provide the depth to push their team over the edge in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Here's our list of candidates:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Jake DeBrusk, LW, Boston Bruins

What better way to show a prospective new employer that you're the real deal than with a top-notch performance during your current employer's most important time of the year? DeBrusk, 25, requested a trade earlier in the season. It didn't happen. So what he did was put it all behind him and approach career-best numbers while playing alongside two guys named Marchand and Bergeron. Don't expect him to fade: he's got the kind of game that thrives in the playoffs. If he can keep up the momentum while everyone has their eyes on the other two guys, he could very well help the Bruins push through.

Tony DeAngelo, D, Carolina Hurricanes

DeAngelo's story has redemption arc written all over it. After being unceremoniously waived last season by the Rangers for being too loud and confrontational (which is saying something for the Big Apple) with teammates and then-coach David Quinn, he was placed on the taxi squad but actually isolated from his teammates. In six games that season, he had one assist, was minus-6 and it looked like he was done.

Spoiler: He wasn't. After signing a low-risk one-year, $1-million deal over the summer with the Hurricanes, who were scrambling after losing Dougie Hamilton, DeAngelo made the most of his second chance. After all, the dude has game: he scored 15 goals in his second full season in the NHL and hit double goals digits again this season. If he can keep his head above water, continue to make sound decisions while pulling first-pairing minutes with Ian Cole and make the most of being the No. 1 D-man on the first power-play unit, the Hurricanes' gamble will pay big playoff dividends.

MacKenzie Weegar, D, Florida Panthers

If you haven't seen too many Panthers games, well, that's a shame. This is a team built to last – and maybe entertain – in the playoffs. A key part of that durability and depth will come from Weegar, the skilled defenceman who's having a career season. He brings a bit of offence, a bit of defence, mixed with a bit of on-the-edge that sometimes tips in the wrong direction.

You just don't know what you're going to get from the 28-year-old Ottawa native; sometimes he just goes off and finds himself in the penalty box, feeling shame. If he can restrain himself, provide solid backup for – or even supplant, as he did for most of the last month – franchise defenceman Aaron Ekblad, who may or may not be back from LTIR for the first round, and keep pinching in/joining the rush/stutter-stepping wisely, the Panthers will continue to make some noise.

Andrew Copp, C, New York Rangers

Don't let the fact that former Winnipeg Jet Copp, 27, missed late-season action with a lower-body injury. It was likely just a precautionary move by the Rangers to protect their trade-deadline acquisition so he can heal up for the playoffs.

Largely unknown outside of fans of the Jets, Copp almost immediately endeared himself to Rangers fans with his combination of skill and smarts. In 16 games with the Rangers, he had eight goals and 10 assists centring none other than the immensely talented Artemi Panarin. He scored a hat trick against the Islanders on April 21, so he appears to be fitting in just fine on his new team. Most attention will be focused on Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Panarin, so having the talented Copp sneak in from the other conference could be a difference-maker for the Blueshirts.

John Marino, D, Pittsburgh Penguins

We all know the big names up front in the spotlight: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Rickard Rakell and Jeff Carter. And on the blueline, attention will be paid to Kris Letang and Michael Matheson ... but not so much Marino. The sky was the limit after Marino scored six goals in his rookie season, but he's slowly played his way down the lineup to the point where there was talk he would be moved before the trade deadline. That didn't happen, of course, and now his play as a top-six defenceman on an offensively minded team will be even more important. The Penguins will be relying on him to continue his solid play on the first penalty-killing unit and be quietly efficient with his 18-20 minutes per game.

Ryan McDonagh, D, Tampa Bay Lightning

When you're the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, not many of your players are dark horses. That's where we bring in McDonagh, 32, as a counterpoint. A steadying influence since coming over from the Rangers all those years ago, McDonagh can still produce while on the No. 2 D pairing and be relied on as part of the No. 1 penalty-killing unit. But with Norris perennial favourite Victor Hedman annually stealing the spotlight, McDonagh gets the job done with very little fanfare. McDonagh still plays big-time D-man minutes, but should the grind of the last two Cup runs begin to weigh down some of the players in front of him, having a guy with McDonagh's poise and experience to step up will be invaluable.

John Tavares, C, Toronto Maple Leafs

Hard to believe we're talking about the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs being outside the spotlight. After all, no one in the blue and white is ever truly under the radar (see: endless talk earlier this season about career third-liner Nick Ritchie). But with all the celebratory focus this season on 60-goal scorer Auston Matthews, linemates Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting, the goalie drama and, to a lesser extent, the evolving defence corps, we haven't heard all that much about Tavares. Which makes him a dark horse.

And when you take a good look at it, the 31-year-old has had a quietly decent season, scoring the most goals since his first season as a Leaf, when he scored 47. (But that minus-8 on an offensively charged team is a big ouch.) If he can be that solid No. 2 centre – scoring big goals, shutting down the other team's star, grinding out – whom every team needs in the playoffs, the Leafs will succeed. They missed him last year after he suffered a serious head injury in the first round against Montreal; a fired-up Tavares cleaning up on the doorstep will go a long way to quieting doubters.

Justin Schultz, D, Washington Capitals

Schultz's days of double-digit goals are done, but he's still got to show his offensive skills on that third D pairing for the Capitals to have any shot. An enigma during his days with the Oilers and Penguins, much was expected from the right-shooting Kelowna, B.C. native, but his game and place in it are different now. He won't win praise for his defensive prowess, but during the playoffs, when attrition is just as big a factor as ambition, having guys who can capably step up into an injury void is key. The playoffs are a clean slate, and given his atrocious plus/minus, Schultz could use one to show he can be a key low-minutes guy who will help quarterback the second power-play unit and answer the bell when tapped on the shoulder should a teammate go down the runway.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Andrew Mangiapane, LW, Calgary Flames

Remember when we heard how surprising Mangiapane's goal scoring was? How his this offence came out of the blue and was a complete bonus for coach Darryl Sutter's team? Well, the Flames' early hot hand eventually cooled (for a 12-game scoring drought) to the point where we started hearing more about the No. 1 line of Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and Johnny Gaudreau.

If the Flames are to exact the expected damage during the playoffs, they will need offence from more than their top line. And that means you, Mangiapane. He's picked it up lately, so the timing is right – you don't want a guy struggling with his confidence in mid-April – and playing with Mikael Backlund and Tyler Toffoli means he will get plenty of crisp passes to convert. But if he runs into another slump, as deep as they are, the Flames will burn out fast.

Devon Toews, D, Colorado Avalanche

As a team that threatened first overall all season and set a franchise record for points, not many players are playing under the radar for the Avalanche. We've heard all the good and sensational things about Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen and the like. But for Makar to succeed in the playoffs, the Avs are going to need solid two-way play from Toews, his defensive partner. Lauded as a dark horse Norris Trophy candidate for this two-way play, Toews has been the conscience to Makar's offensive guilt trip. While Makar is in the highlights, Toews is typically diligently hanging back, off-screen, to provide coverage just in case the rush turns. He's on the No. 1 D pairing, the second power-play unit and the first penalty-killing unit. Oh, and his numbers, on their own, are not in the rarefied Makar air, but they're still pretty stellar.

John Klingberg, D, Dallas Stars

With the spotlight on Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn (especially Benn, who had a disappointing season), the Stars will need more from their D. Enter Klingberg. The most-talked-about player before the trade deadline got hurt and found himself staying with the Stars to help with the stretch drive and, after the Stars became the last team to qualify, will be counted on for big playoff minutes on the blueline. His stock dropped enough for the Stars to let him play on without an extension, so expectations are comparatively lower, meaning he could make a big difference.

Zach Hyman, LW, Edmonton Oilers

When Evander Kane came to town, Hyman found himself bumped and looking for ways to contribute from the second line. Then, a millisecond later, he realized the second-line centre was Leon Draisaitl, another top-five pivot in the league. As a result, his career year continued pretty much apace, at one point running up a five-game goal-scoring streak. But he's faltered down the stretch, at one point in April scoring a mere two goals in 11 games. If the Oilers' top line is neutralized in the first round, all eyes will be on Hyman, Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto to pick up the slack.

Sean Durzi, D, Los Angeles Kings

You might not know much about him, but that's to be expected with a rookie playing in L.A. All Durzi, 23, does is log serious time quarterbacking the second power-play unit and killing penalties on the first unit. During 5-on-5, he's on the second pairing, typically with Mikey Anderson. This guy is a very definition of dark horse, and his puck-moving and offensive skills could be vital to the Kings' playoff chances against the Oilers, especially with star defenceman Drew Doughty on long-term injury reserve.

Matt Boldy, W, Minnesota Wild

Keep an eye on Boldy, 21, a former college star who was called up from the AHL in January and hasn't looked back since. Sure, he's relatively green. Sure, he's unaccustomed to the Stanley Cup playoff grind. But he has enough confidence to step right into a deep Wild lineup and produce at almost a point-a-game pace, and his smarts are off the charts for a player his age. A little swagger goes a long ways these days in the NHL, and having a rook manning the point on the power play (and trying – and succeeding – on a between-the-legs rebound) is that personified. He's not speedy, but fast enough for his size to be able to create time and space for himself, and will be counted on to lend a hand with depth offence.

Ryan Johansen, C, Nashville Predators

You're probably expecting goalie David Rittich here because of Juuse Saros' injury, but you can't be a dark horse if you're forced into action before the playoffs even start. With defenceman Roman Josi accounting for so much offence and Filip Forsberg working voodoo stick moves on the top line with Mikael Granlund and Matt Duchene, it's going to fall to the second-line centre to keep things afloat if the Predators are going to have any shot at all. This is where Johansen steps in. He posted his best goal production as a Predators and best since 2014-15, which must translate to the post-season to take the heat off that top line.

Jordan Kyrou, W, St. Louis Blues

Kyrou, 23, clearly has a love for the game, mad skills and the potential to be a game-breaker if his top-end teammates get claustrophobic under the Wild's blanket coverage. When on his game, he's exciting to watch and can bring fans to their feet. But he can also disappear and, like most offensively gifted wingers, can be defensively challenged. This season, when the Blues were scoring practically at will, Kyrou was a big factor. Even while moving up and down the lineup, from first line to fourth lines while he worked on a more responsible two-way game, he still managed to get close to 30 goals. No one is expecting him to be Patrice Bergeron, but you can't be pedal-to-the-metal in the playoffs; you've got to pick your spots. If he finds those spots, even if he sees limited ice time on a very good two-way team, the Blues will find themselves blasting past the Wild.

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