NHL Playoffs 2012 Predictions: 7 Players Who Will Matter Most

Steven ConklinCorrespondent IIMarch 27, 2012

NHL Playoffs 2012 Predictions: 7 Players Who Will Matter Most

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    It won't be long before the Stanley Cup Playoffs are here and we see the true stars of the NHL: the players who can carry an entire team on their back or hold them up just long enough to pull through. 

    Some of the league's brightest stars, such as Corey Perry, Rick Nash, Steven Stamkos and maybe even Alex Ovechkin won't be seen anywhere come playoff time. 

    But that just gives so many other players a chance to shine brighter or break through and become a household name. 

    So who will do just that?

    Here are seven players who will be the most important to their clubs in the 2012 Stanley Cup Players.

James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The real Pittsburgh Penguins have shown themselves in the second half of the season. This is a deadly team who could handle much of the Eastern Conference with ease if things go accordingly. 

    It's pretty much a given that the Pens will see production from Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

    But James Neal could fly under the radar and break a lot of hearts outside of Pittsburgh this spring. 

    Neal has quietly had one of the best seasons in the NHL this year, netting 35 goals and 76 points. He's proven he is worth his new six-year, $30 million extension.

    After riding shotgun next to the league's leading scorer all year, Neal could become the driver in Pittsburgh this postseason.

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

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    No playoff-bound team has given up more goals than the Ottawa Senators, and part of the blame can go to the ridiculous injury Craig Anderson suffered over a month ago after cutting his hand at home. 

    Craig Anderson is now back and with suspect backups like Alex Auld and Robin Lehner, Anderson will need to regain his pre-injury form if Ottawa wants to have any success this postseason. 

    We know the Senators will score goals with Jason Spezza leading the charge.

    But if the only team to represent Canada in the Eastern Conference isn't stellar in net and on defense, they'll be quick to go. 

    Anderson will need to carry the load. 

Jaroslav Halak, St. Louis Blues

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    Absolutely no one could have predicted the St. Louis Blues would be the NHL's best team. 

    The Blues are having their best season in over a decade and it is due in part to a tremendous defense and the dynamic goalie duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. 

    Although Elliott was the team's lone All-Star in Ottawa this year and he leads the NHL in shutouts, goals-against average and save percentage, it will be Halak who is most important this April. 

    Elliott has barely any playoff experience, while Halak made a name for himself leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010. 

    If Halak plays anywhere near the level he did in Montreal, the Blues could be in for a nice, long ride. 

Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Goaltending hurt the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Ilya Bryzgalov will be there to prevent that in the coming weeks. 

    In fact, there may not be another player whose success will correlate directly with his team as much as Bryzgalov. 

    If the Flyers see superb netminding from the first-year Flyer, there is no reason Philly can't compete with every other team in the East. 

    But if he struggles like he did early in the year, Bryzgalov could bring the Flyers down with him. 

Stephen Weiss, Florida Panthers

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    The Florida Panthers have been a surprise story for many reasons this season. 

    Did anyone expect them to be ahead of the Washington Capitals this late in the campaign and have one of the East's top seeds with a minus-20 goal differential? 

    Doubt it.

    Behind the club's quiet success has been Stephen Weiss. Second on the team in scoring, Weiss also leads all forwards in ice time per game. 

    As the club's top center and one of it's leaders, the Florida Panthers' fate may rest on his shoulders.

Niklas Lidstrom

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    This is a no-brainer. 

    Niklas Lidstrom is the heart and soul of the Detroit Red Wings. He has played a major role in Detroit's success during the last 20 seasons. 

    With his numerous James Norris Trophies and All-Star appearances, Lidstrom is considered one of the best defensemen in NHL history for a reason. 

    And with four Stanley Cups under his belt, Lidstrom will matter most to this Red Wings squad in the playoffs. 

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks are lucky to have two great goaltending options in Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider, but the reality is that only one likes to show up for the playoffs. 

    Luongo has the playoff scars that draw a lot of criticism from hockey fans, and this summer he'll have a chance to redeem himself and prove he can be clutch when it matters. 

    After coming so close to the Cup in 2011, Vancouver will be as motivated as anyone to get to the Finals again, and it's starting to show with their three straight victories. 

    But will Roberto Luongo bring his team down again?

    Steven Conklin joined the Bleacher Report in October 2011. He is a student at the University of Central Missouri and is currently a B/R Intern. Any comments, questions, or suggestions are welcomed.