NHL's 50 Players Who Will Decide the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IMarch 7, 2012

NHL's 50 Players Who Will Decide the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    With only a few weeks left in the regular season, the Stanley Cup playoffs will be here before you know it. 

    Even though every team needs all their players to be at their best during the postseason, some player's performances mean much more than others.

    These are the players who will have the most impact on the outcome of the Stanley Cup playoffs this season. Let's look at who those players are.

    Note: Only players from teams currently in a playoff spot as of March 6 are included.

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

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    New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is having another strong season and is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy. He's also a top candidate for the Hart Trophy.

    If the Rangers are to win the Stanley Cup this season, Lundqvist has to carry the team and be consistently dominant like he has for much of this year.

Brad Richards, New York Rangers

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    New York Rangers center Brad Richards was the team's major free agent signing last summer, and his previous experience as a Stanley Cup winner will certainly help his team in the playoffs. Not many of the Rangers' best players have Stanley Cup rings.

Derek Stepan, New York Rangers

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    In his second full NHL season, Derek Stepan has 44 points and is an important part of the New York Rangers offense.

    Stepan will be counted on to provide goal scoring in the playoffs because the Rangers cannot rely on Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards to lead the offense by themselves. Stepan is ready to raise his game another level in the playoffs.

Marian Gaborik, New York Rangers

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    New York Rangers winger Marian Gaborik is having a spectacular season and has scored 32 goals this season.

    With every goal being so important in the playoffs, Gaborik will have to raise his offensive game even higher in the postseason.

Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

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    Tim Thomas will once again have to be dominant in the playoffs for the Bruins to have postseason success. 

    With backup Tuukka Rask out for at least the rest of the regular season with an injury, Thomas won't be able to rest much before the playoffs begin.

David Krejci, Boston Bruins

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    David Krejci led last year's playoffs in goals and points and will need to be a prime playoff performer again for the Bruins this season.

    Krejci has been a tremendous player in the postseason throughout his career, and Boston is hoping he can yet again raise his game when it matters most. Krejci's playmaking ability and faceoff skill is crucial to the Bruins offense.

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

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    The Bruins are hoping that captain Zdeno Chara can play much better in the playoffs than he has over the last few weeks.

    Chara must shut down the opposing team's top forwards like he did in last last year's playoffs if the Bruins are to repeat as Stanley Cup champs.

Rich Peverley, Boston Bruins

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    When Rich Peverley returns from his knee injury, the Boston Bruins need him to bring the speed and scoring he did before his injury.

    With star forward Nathan Horton probably not coming back at all this season because of a concussion, Peverley must take his place and succeed like he did in the Cup Final last season, when he starred on Horton's line against the Canucks.

Kris Versteeg, Florida Panthers

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    Kris Versteeg is a having a very nice year for the Florida Panthers, who have surprised everyone by leading the Southeast Division for most of the season.

    Versteeg will need to continue to lead the Panthers offense if the team is to make a deep playoff run.

Brian Campbell, Florida Panthers

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    Florida defenseman Brian Campbell's Stanley Cup winning experience with the Chicago Blackhawks from the 2009-10 season will help the Panthers, and so will his offensive talents. He leads the team with 40 assists thus far.

Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    After battling a concussion earlier in the season, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang will need to be healthy for the team to make another deep playoff run.

    Letang is an elite defenseman and is a big part of the team's success at both ends of the ice.

Marc Andre-Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury is the most important player for the Penguins heading into the postseason.

    He has the ability to steal games with his immense talent and has Stanley Cup winning experience under his belt too. Fleury is an elite goaltender but doesn't get the recognition he deserves.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    If Sidney Crosby can return soon and be able to play for the Penguins in the playoffs, then Pittsburgh will be a top contender for the Stanley Cup.

    He's the best player in the NHL and would make the Penguins offense even more dangerous than it is now.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Ilya Bryzgalov has been a disappointment this season, but the Philadelphia Flyers goaltender can erase all the criticism of him if he can lead the team to their first Stanley Cup title in decades.

    The Flyers signed him to a huge contract last summer because they needed stronger goaltending in the playoffs.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Philadelphia Flyers star center Claude Giroux is a Hart Trophy candidate this season, and is third in the NHL in points with 75. 

    He will have to maintain his high level of play in the playoffs if the Flyers want to return to the Stanley Cup Final.

Pavel Kubina, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Pavel Kubina was acquired by the Flyers from the Tampa Bay Lightning to help fill the void created by captain Chris Pronger's season-ending injury.

    Kubina must play well in the defensive zone for the Flyers to make Bryzgalov's job as easy as possible.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

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    Martin Brodeur has won three Stanley Cup titles with the New Jersey Devils, and although he isn't the same elite player he once was, he's still capable of making great saves when his team needs them the most.

Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils

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    Adam Larsson is one of the finest young defensemen in the NHL, and has shown the maturity of a veteran throughout his career.

    The Devils will need him to raise his game another level if the team wants to make the second round.

Adam Henrique, New Jersey Devils

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    Adam Henrique is my choice for the Calder Trophy this season but he must maintain his strong level of play this season in the playoffs if the Devils want to advance past the first round.

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    Erik Karlsson is the league leader in points among defensemen and is a top candidate for the Norris Trophy as well.

    Karlsson will have to dominate offensively if the Senators are to have any chance of advancing to the second round.

Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators

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    Ottawa Senators star forward Jason Spezza is fourth in the league in points with 72, and has quietly become a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate. Spezza must be a reliable goal scorer for the Senators in the playoffs or they won't last for long.

Ben Bishop, Ottawa Senators

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    If Craig Anderson isn't ready to begin the playoffs after recovering from surgery, then the Senators will need young goaltender Ben Bishop to shine in his place.

Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

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    Blake Wheeler has found his game in Winnipeg after some disappointing seasons with the Boston Bruins, and leads the Jets in points, assists and plus/minus.

    Wheeler will have to continue his strong offensive play for the Jets to have success in the postseason.

Evander Kane, Winnipeg Jets

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    Evander Kane is having the best season of his young career and leads the Winnipeg Jets with 26 goals. If Kane can handle the pressure of the playoffs and use his great offensive talents to score goals consistently, then the Jets could surprise the Rangers in the first round.

Andrew Ladd, Winnipeg Jets

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    Andrew Ladd is a solid two-way player whose offensive talent and leadership skills will be crucial to the Winnipeg Jets' success in the playoffs.

    His Stanley Cup winning experience will certainly help the Jets also.

Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks

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    After a solid first three rounds in last year's playoffs, Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin's offensive production plummeted in the Stanley Cup Final versus the Boston Bruins.

    Sedin will be determined to redeem himself after last season's disappointment.

Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks

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    After scoring in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final last season, Daniel Sedin did not score another goal for the Vancouver Canucks over the next five games of the series.

    Like his brother, Daniel will be eager to impress this postseason and erase the memories of last year.

Zack Kassian, Vancouver Canucks

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    After getting physically beaten by the Boston Bruins in last year's Cup Final, it was obvious that the Canucks needed to add some toughness this season.

    By giving up promising young center Cody Hodgson to acquire Zack Kassian, the young forward will be under a lot of pressure to perform well in the playoffs and add some toughness to Vancouver.

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

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    Roberto Luongo was unable to win in Boston as he let the Canucks down in last year's Cup Final.

    If he plays well on the road in the playoffs this season, the Canucks will win the Stanley Cup. If he doesn't, Vancouver's challenge of winning the team's first championship will become much more difficult. 

Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks

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    If Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo cannot win on the road in the playoffs, or struggles in multiple games, then young backup Cory Schneider will be counted on to save the team's season.

Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues

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    When the St. Louis Blues acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2010, they did so because of his playoff success that season.

    The Blues are hoping Halak can take the Blues on a deep playoff run this season, and he's certainly capable of doing that.

Michael Ryder, Dallas Stars

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    Free of Claude Julien's defensive system in Boston, Michael Ryder has been fantastic offensively for the Dallas Stars this season. Ryder is on pace for 30-plus goals this season.

    His playoff experience and goal scoring ability will be massively important for the Stars come playoff time.

Loui Eriksson, Dallas Stars

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    Loui Eriksson is one of hockey's finest young players and is an elite offensive talent. He leads the Stars in points and will have to play like a star in the playoffs for Dallas to advance past the second round.

Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

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    Detroit Red Wings star Jimmy Howard has become one of the league's best goaltenders this season and will have to play very well for Detroit to make another Stanley Cup Final appearance.

    If the Red Wings can enter the playoffs with few injuries, Howard is capable of leading them to another championship.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

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    Pavel Datsyuk's importance to the Detroit Red Wings at both ends of the ice makes him irreplaceable in their lineup.

    If Datsyuk is scoring goals and making life miserable for opponents in the defensive zone, the Red Wings will be very tough to beat.

Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators

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    Ryan Suter's play in the postseason will be vital to the Nashville Predators' chances of winning the Stanley Cup. He must dominate in the defensive zone to help the Predators defeat highly skilled teams such as the Canucks and Red Wings.

    He will also have to block out the distractions surrounding his future and upcoming free agent status in the summer.

Martin Erat, Nashville Predators

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    Martin Erat leads the Nashville Predators with just 48 points, and must produce at a high level in the playoffs because there isn't much goal scoring ability on the team.

    If Erat struggles, the Predators offense will crumble and the team will be quickly eliminated. 

Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    Shea Weber is a top Norris Trophy candidate this season and will play a massive role in the playoff success of the Predators this season.

    Weber and Suter must shut down opposing team's top lines like Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg of the Bruins did last year or Nashville will not reach the Western Conference Finals.

    Weber needs to dominate defensively and excel on the power play to help the Predators defeat teams with more offensive talent.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

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    With the Nashville Predators not able to score goals as consistently as the top teams in the Western Conference, star goaltender Pekka Rinne will have to shine throughout the playoffs. 

    If Rinne can play like Tim Thomas did last season for the Bruins in this year's playoffs, which he's capable of, then the Predators could go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jonathan Toews is going to help decide the playoffs whether he's healthy or not. If he can come back from his head injury, then the Blackhawks will be a dangerous team because of his two-way ability and excellent leadership.

    If he cannot come back, the Blackhawks will find it hard to advance to the second round.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Patrick Kane probably isn't going to score 30 goals this season but he is still an elite offensive talent who the Blackhawks will rely on to score goals consistently in the playoffs.

    If captain Jonathan Toews is hurt and misses games in the postseason, Kane will have to raise his offensive and defensive games to new heights for Chicago to succeed.

Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Stanley Cup hopes of the Chicago Blackhawks rest on the shoulders of young goaltender Corey Crawford. If he doesn't play well and struggles in multiple games, the Blackhawks won't get back to the Final. 

    After a midseason slump, Crawford has played better of late. Hopefully, he can continue to improve as the playoffs approach.

Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Radim Vrbata is another player quietly having a fantastic season who's not getting the credit he deserves. 

    Vrbata has 30 goals for the Phoenix Coyotes, which leads the team, and if he can continue his strong offensive play in the playoffs, the Coyotes will be tough to beat.

    Vrbata is one of the many players on the Coyotes who do all the little things on the ice you must do to win.

Ray Whitney, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Even at 39 years old, Ray Whitney is still a star forward capable of putting up a ton of points. He leads the Coyotes in scoring and must play well in the postseason if they are to advance to the second round. 

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Mike Smith was an underrated pickup for the Phoenix Coyotes this season after they lost star goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov in free agency last summer.

    For the Coyotes to get past the first round, Smith must play very well and not force his team to dig out of early deficits. 

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

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    After battling through injury last season to lead the San Jose Sharks to the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year, Joe Thornton will have to be even better to get his team to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in team history.

    Thornton won't have many more opportunities to get deep in the playoffs, so he must shine this season.

Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks

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    After a disappointing playoffs last year, Patrick Marleau must play better for the Sharks to finally reach the Stanley Cup Final.

    He's one of the team's best players, and they cannot reach their goal if Marleau doesn't play at a high level throughout the playoffs.

Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

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    Logan Couture is second on the Sharks in points and has been their most consistent player this season. He's one of the best young players in the sport and the 2012 playoffs could be a coming out party for Couture, who will need to carry San Jose if some of the veterans are struggling or are injured.

Martin Havlat, San Jose Sharks

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    Martin Havlat was traded to San Jose last summer, and if he cannot return to the Sharks healthy enough to be effective in the playoffs, then the team's offense could struggle. Havlat was acquired by the Sharks because he does well in the postseason.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks

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    Antti Niemi has had a good season between the pipes for the San Jose Sharks but he hasn't been as consistent as the team hoped he would be.

    They acquired him before last season because he had just won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and was needed to replace Evgeni Nabokov, who just couldn't get it done when it mattered most.

    If the Sharks are going to make the Cup Final, Niemi will have to win some games for the team by himself.