NHL Playoffs 2012: One Player Each Playoff Team Will Look for to Lead Them
It's that time of the year, folks.
Time for the NHL's annual second season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Christmas is often regarded as the "happiest time of the year."
Well, not for me. This is.
I'm going to outline a player, or players each team in the postseason is going to look to for the most leadership on the ice. Despite the title saying one player, hockey is a team sport, and teams often rely on a group of players more so than a single one.
So sit back, grab some popcorn, and let's get ready for the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs!
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In my opinion, the Canucks are the NHL's perfect unit of players.
And it's been proven once again, with the club winning its second consecutive President's Trophy.
The Canucks have had everything working against them from the start of the season. The team's location has them traveling almost twice as many miles as any other NHL team on the schedule.
Vancouver's training staff must be putting something in the Kool-Aid because the Canucks rarely show any fatigue from the jet lag.
So why didn't the Canucks win the Stanley Cup last year when it was almost guaranteed they would?
The Canucks' goaltender has developed a reputation around the league as a "choker" and is probably single-handedly the most hated goaltender by NHL fans outside of Vancouver.
That doesn't change the pedigree that Luongo carries as one of the NHL's elite goaltenders.
Yes, I said elite.
The Canucks have gotten used to consistent play and scoring from all their big name players, and there aren't any leadership issues on the team.
The five skaters on the ice will do their jobs; they're just looking for Luongo to continue to do his.
Los Angeles Kings
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In my opinion, there's no one the Kings are pointing the finger at more right now than center and alternate captain Anze Kopitar.
He didn't appear in the postseason last year due to injury, and it's safe to assume that it was a contributing factor to the Kings' Game 6 exit from the first round of the playoffs.
Facing the Canucks in the first round, it's almost guaranteed that the issues the Kings have had all season with scoring will continue.
In my mind, I see Canucks coach Alain Vigneault matching his own forward Chris Higgins against Kopitar.
While Higgins is an extremely talented two-way player, the gas in Kopitar's skates should allow him to run court on Higgins for at least two or three shifts per game and hopefully result in some point production for the Kings.
San Jose Sharks
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Sharks captain Joe Thornton is the heartbeat and lifeblood of his club.
One of the decade's best players, he holds records that put him in the company of players such as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. And that's not bad company to be in, at all.
The only thing that's different between Thornton and the company he's in is the hardware Gretz and Mario wear on their fingers.
Thornton's production in the post-season for the Sharks was satisfiable to an extent, but there's always room for improvement.
Analysts and fans alike have grown accustomed to "bashing" Sharks forward Patrick Marleau for "not showing up" in the postseason. They want more goals, they want more effort.
There's no better person to dish those goals to Marleau than Thornton.
I've often explained to non-hockey fans that the easiest way to describe Thornton is picturing Tom Brady passing a puck instead of a ball.
Well, Jumbo could make it to the Stanley Cup Finals this year for the first time, but he'll certainly want a better result than Brady produced in the Super Bowl.
St. Louis Blues
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There's no arguing that the St. Louis Blues have one of the best chances to run the Western Conference in this year's post-season.
Aside from a few changes they made on the ice, the new skipper they put behind the bench has had the biggest effect on the club as a whole.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock's 1-1-2 forecheck has been devouring NHL teams all season, and the playoffs might have the same result.
The Blues have an extremely talented young core of players, such as David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo. And while Blues brass and fans are expecting these players to keep the train rolling, I feel the biggest impact is going to come from the veteran presence it acquired in the off season.
Players like Kent Huskins, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who have already won Stanley Cups. Hell, even a player like Scott Nichol will contribute massively in the guidance of this team to the goal of trying to capture the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
You want your best players during the regular season to be your best players during the playoffs also, and the veterans can assist in seeing this happening.
Detroit Red Wings
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The Red Wings are another team most fans don't anticipate making it past the first round.
But don't count them out--completely, that is.
More than one player, the Red Wings should be looking to the leadership of Henrik Zetterberg and hopefully some consistent play from Johan Franzen.
And before anyone gets started, leadership from Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom is a given, not expected. He will do his job, as he has his entire career.
Valtteri Filppula has set the bar high for himself with a career season, and Wings fans are hoping he can keep it going. But the Jekyll/Hyde play from Franzen has to go away if the Wings want to make it past their first round opponent, the Nashville Predators.
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It's hard to imagine the Nashville Predators being anything but comfortable with their playoff fate this season.
In many people's minds, they enter their series against the Detroit Red Wings not as underdogs, but as favorites for a change.
The Predators are always a joy for a true hockey fan to watch, as they are the embodiment of a pure hockey club. Outside of the one "major" trade they made for Peter Forsberg years ago, the Predators are a completely homegrown franchise.
They have several different weapons, and players of all different calibers that can get the job done for them.
But while they may be favorites in their series against the Red Wings, they certainly aren't favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
With that being said, the safest thing to bank on for the Predators is them just coming out and playing hockey.
It was hard to pick a single player that this team is counting on the most, but when you look at the scoresheet, it becomes immediately apparent.
The Predators aren't a team that has an issue scoring goals necessarily, but they don't score a lot. The goals come in furies for this club, and they bank on the stellar play of their goaltender Pekka Rinne.
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Personally, I couldn't have been any happier for the way things panned out for the Phoenix Coyotes this season.
Even though they stole the division from my beloved Sharks, they deserved it.
The Coyotes have been nothing short of a laughing stock to NHL fans for years, and with the recent issues with the team's ownership and status coming into play, what they did this season only points more to the fact that no matter where they play, they are in fact there to play. And they want to win.
The Pacific Division has been a measuring stick for the Western Conference for the last couple of seasons, and this year was no different, with playoff seedings coming down to the very last game. Again.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan has spent his entire career with the club and is still waiting for the day when he can advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Coyotes may not win the Stanley Cup this year, but the efforts of Doan will certainly ensure they live to fight as many days as possible.
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The Chicago Blackhawks have a very interesting playoff situation on their hands.
They have a formidable opponent in the Coyotes, who are running on the adrenaline of having a very hot goaltender at the moment and winning the club's first divisional title in franchise history.
But the Blackhawks are no pushovers themselves. They have several players that are just raw goal scorers.
And maybe no more so than Patrick Kane.
With the future of team captain Jonathan Toews still in question, the Hawks need someone to step up and take the responsibility of putting the puck in the net.
And who better than the player who scored the goal to end the team's nearly 50-year long Stanley Cup drought?
New York Rangers
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If there's one player New York Rangers fans have grown to accept consistency issues from, it's Marian Gaborik.
Entering the postseason, the Rangers find themselves in almost unfamiliar territory.
Being atop the Eastern Conference is something they haven't seen in several years in New York.
So you'd think their playoff expectations are pretty high, right?
Well, you'd definitely be correct.
With players such as Brad Richards, Brandon Dubinsky, captain Ryan Callahan and the always hot goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers are hardly expecting to be done in the first round.
Their series against the Ottawa Senators will not be an easy one, but if Gaborik brings his game from the opening faceoff, it will certainly lower the stressors in the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
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Senators fans might have started the season worrying a little bit.
And that's because their team was winning games. A lot of games.
All joking aside, the Senators' hot streak cooled down, as it often does in this sport, and the team should be happy with its record allowing them admission into the playoffs.
The Senators have some weapons that can produce legitimate wins for the club, but goaltender Craig Anderson brings some hefty playoff experience with him.
As a member of the Colorado Avalanche, he almost did virtually the same thing there that he's done in Ottawa. And that's gotten them into the postseason.
I wouldn't go as far to say that I think the Senators are legitimate contenders to knock the Rangers out of the playoffs, but they can definitely put a dent in the series.
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The Boston Bruins are almost tailor made for this time of year.
They play a very bruising style of hockey that wears their opponents out, and I'd venture to say that they could almost win their series against the Capitals by playing the puck along the corners and in the boards the whole time.
There are several weapons in Boston's arsenal. Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron just to name a few.
But it's the play of David Krejci that always amazes me in the postseason.
He always amps his game to another level when April comes around, and it was a huge factor in the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup last season.
Watch for him to have the same effect this year.
The easiest way for me to describe the Washington Capitals is being the San Jose Sharks of the Eastern Conference.
A roster so stacked with pure talent and raw goal scorers, they make you sit around and scratch your head while legitimately trying to figure out how this team hasn't won a Stanley Cup yet.
As the Capitals enter the postseason again trying to win the club's first championship, there is no player that the spotlight is shining on brighter than captain Alex Ovechkin.
There never is. And there shouldn't be.
When you're paid over $100 million to lead a team, that's what you should do.
And that's what Capitals fans are counting on. Plain and simple.
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While the Florida Panthers were spending to the cap floor in the off season, I was complaining that it would be another reason that the NHL could be facing another lockout.
But, I also told people to keep a close eye on the Panthers this season.
And of course, no one did.
End of season and the Panthers find themselves as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
I won't take all the credit, but I will say I told you so.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is up to the same tricks he was up to in Chicago. Literally.
More than one player, the entire Panthers team has to just take this series one game at a time and fight for victories if they want to last. They'll be facing the New Jersey Devils, and I feel they have a legitimate chance to advance past the first round.
But let's be real, John Vanbiesbrouck retired years ago.
New Jersey Devils
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The Devils are entering the postseason as the modest No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
With veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur and other seasoned players such as Patrick Elias, Cam Janssen and captain Zach Parise, the Devils are just looking to show some postseason production and entertain the fans a little.
If the Devils want to make a serious impact in their series against the Florida Panthers, there's one person who really needs to show up.
We all know Kovalchuck has the ability to score goals, and score lots of them.
It's just a matter of execution.
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For the sake of momentum and nostalgia, I feel Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has the biggest responsibility for his team during this postseason.
Sure, wearing the "C" on your sweater carries a responsibility in its own right, but Crosby has spent a lot of time away from the game. And while it may have been due to injury, that doesn't change the fact that while he was gone, other players were getting attention. Now he's back, and just like that, he's grabbed the spotlight back.
He's essentially skating out there every night with a giant "X" marked on him.
The Penguins' series against their across-town rivals, the Flyers, is sure to be a bloodbath.
But if Crosby can keep up his current point pace, it should at least make things interesting on the scoreboard.
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I've long called Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov one of the most overrated goaltenders in NHL history.
He jumped ship from Phoenix to Philly after several respectable seasons and signed a big-money contract that guaranteed he would be spending several years in his new home.
He is going to have his work more than cut out for him when he faces off against the Penguins in the first round. There will be plenty of scorers on that teams roster, and with that, plenty of pucks coming Bryzgalov's way.
This will be the series that defines his career to the fans of the Flyers organization. More than winning a Stanley Cup, East Coast sports carry a very heavy sense of pride with them. Losing to the Penguins? Well, it's almost considered a Cardinal Sin.
David is a lifelong hockey fan and player. He has had season tickets for the San Jose Sharks since the teams inception. He is always looking for new puckheads to talk hockey with and you can find him on Twitter: @TheReal_DB3. For every 300 followers on Twitter, he'll donate 1K to an NHL Charity!