NHL Playoffs 2012: Sidney Crosby and Every Team's Most Important Player

Matt Moran@@mattgmoranContributor IIIApril 13, 2012

NHL Playoffs 2012: Sidney Crosby and Every Team's Most Important Player

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    Superstars emerge in the NHL playoffs as 16 teams battle for the coveted Stanley Cup.

    Each squad has made the first step to capturing a championship by reaching the 2012 NHL postseason, which began on Wednesday. Plenty of players have contributed to getting their teams to this position, but whether or not they advance will depend on which squad's key players perform at a higher level.

    The intensity is kicked up a notch when the playoffs roll through, and goals will be a lot harder to score. One mistake by a player could get his team sent home. One big play can turn him into a hero.

    Here is a list of each club's most important player for the postseason, starting with the Western Conference. 

West 1. Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Kesler, C

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    In the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, Ryan Kesler was arguably the best second-line center in the NHL. 

    Last season's Selke award winner for top defensive forward, Kesler had seven goals and 12 assists in the last postseason. With the Sedin twins dominating the top line, Kesler provides a second option to who would be the best scorer on half of the other teams in the NHL.

    Kesler's point total dipped from 73 in the 2010-11 regular season to just 49 this year, so there is some concern about how Kesler will do in the playoffs. We know that the Sedins will do their thing on the top line, but if Kesler doesn't perform on the second line, the Canucks might exit the postseason quickly.

2. St. Louis Blues: Jaroslav Halak, G

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    The Blues came out of nowhere and won the Central Division title with their defense, and it started with the one-two combination of goaltenders Halak and Brian Elliott. 

    Halak is the starter heading into the playoffs, but if he falters, St. Louis will not hesitate to give Elliott a shot. Halak carried the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2010 NHL playoffs, and it led to a big contract with the Blues. St. Louis hopes that Halak has similar ideas in this postseason; if he does, the Blues can win it all.

    However, it is difficult for a team to make the playoffs after a stretch of bad seasons and win the Stanley Cup right away. But the St. Louis defense could carry the team all the way to the title.

3. Phoenix Coyotes: Mike Smith, G

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    Smith is perhaps the hottest goalie in the NHL playoffs, finishing the regular season with an 8-0-1 record. In his last six games, he has stopped 233 of 238 shots. 

    Smith was the best player on the ice in the Coyotes' 3-2 OT win in game one against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night. Smith had 43 saves in the victory.

    The way Smith is playing right now, he could carry Phoenix a long way through the postseason. How far the Coyotes go will depend on Smith's play, because they do not have an explosive offense by any means.

4. Nashville Predators: Shea Weber, D

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    The Predators are a defensive-minded team, and Weber will be have to be a huge factor in Nashville's first-round series if the team wants to get past the Detroit Red Wings. 

    Weber led Nashville with a +21 rating in the regular season, and he was fourth on the team in points, with 49. Nashville knows what to expect out of goaltender Pekka Rinne, but he will have to get some help from Weber and the defense against the Red Wings' multiple offensive weapons.

    Weber has stuck with Nashville throughout its growth from an expansion franchise to a Cup contender. A big postseason performance will make his name known throughout the NHL, which could be a huge payoff considering Weber's potential free-agent status in the offseason.

5. Detroit Red Wings: Pavel Datsyuk, C

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    Datsyuk is arguably the best puck-handler in the NHL, and his offensive game makes hockey look like the And 1 Mixtape Tour. See for yourself how skilled he is on the ice.

    Datsyuk finished second on the Red Wings in points (67), despite missing 12 games during the regular season. Datsyuk was the only Detroit player to notch double digits in points during the team's two-round stay in the NHL playoffs last year.

    Up against a talented goaltender in Nashville's Pekka Rinne in the first round, Datsyuk will have to pull a few tricks out of his sleeve for the Red Wings to advance. They are down 1-0 in the series heading into Game 2 tonight.

6. Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews, C

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    Toews missed the final 22 games of the regular season because of a concussion, but he returned to play in Game 1 against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night. He scored the first goal of the game in the opening period.

    Toews is arguably the Blackhawks' best two-way player, and he needs to be healthy and productive for Chicago to make a long postseason run. 

    Toews tied for second on the team with 29 goals in 59 games. The 'Hawks captain and 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has the ability to put the team on his back and carry it a long way.

7. San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton, C

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    Thornton had his lowest goal output in the regular season since he was traded to the Sharks during the 2005-06 NHL season. Still, he managed to lead the team with 77 points. 

    San Jose goes as Thornton goes. The veteran star center may have another postseason run left in the tank, but as the No. 7 seed, San Jose faces a difficult road. The Sharks have made back-to-back Western Conference Final appearances.

    This will be Thornton's first NHL playoffs without right-winger Dany Heatley. Thornton, Heatley and Patrick Marleau once formed one of the top lines in the league, but now Thornton will have to perform without one of his wing men. 

8. Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick, G

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    Even though the Kings nabbed the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, they are not a favorable matchup for any team. They showed that in a Game 1 overtime victory over the President's Trophy winner Vancouver Canucks. 

    Quick is the reason to thank for that.

    Quick is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, and he has the ability to take Los Angeles all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Quick ranked second in the league with a 1.95 goals-against average and first in shutouts with 10.

    The Kings are ready to take the next step in the postseason. They lost in the first round for two straight seasons, and Quick's goaltending could push them over the hump against a tough Vancouver squad. 

East 1. New York Rangers: Marian Gaborik, RW

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    Gaborik had a sensational regular season with 41 goals, and he led the top Eastern Conference team in points. It was the third time in Gaborik's career that he eclipsed the 40-goal mark.

    The Rangers were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. Expectations were high coming into the year, but outside of New York, few thought the Rangers would earn the No. 1 seed in the East. The 2012 All-Star game MVP Gaborik is part of the reason for New York's success this year.

    Gaborik has already notched a goal this postseason, scoring in the Rangers' 4-2, Game 1 win over the No. 8-seed Ottawa Senators.

2. Boston Bruins: Tim Thomas, G

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    We all saw what Tim Thomas could do when he led the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup. He also earned the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way. 

    Can Thomas repeat the feat this season?

    Well, he is off to a good start. Thomas stonewalled the Washington Capitals in Game 1 on Thursday night en route to a 1-0 win in double OT. Thomas had four shutouts in the 2011 playoffs. He had just five during the 2011-12 regular season.

    If Thomas can recapture his postseason magic, the Bruins could be celebrating another Stanley Cup victory. The defensive, physical Boston squad's success hinges on how well Thomas plays.

3. Florida Panthers: Brian Campbell, D

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    Campbell played a full season for the first time since 2008-09, and he collected a career-high 53 points for Florida during the regular season.

    His defensive leadership for a young Panthers squad will be important if Florida wishes to advance in the postseason for the first time since making a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996. Tonight will be the first playoff game for the franchise since 2000.

    Campbell led the team with 49 assists during the regular season. This will be his seventh straight appearance in the NHL postseason.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby, C

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    Crosby appeared in just 22 games during the regular season, but his late return to the lineup makes Pittsburgh arguably the most complete team in the NHL heading into the playoffs.

    Crosby's return to the Penguins' lineup was welcomed, as Sid the Kid produced 29 assists in his limited time. If he stays healthy, the Penguins could ride Crosby on a long run through the NHL postseason. He already notched a goal and an assist in Pittsburgh's Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

    The Penguins are still good enough to advance through a couple of rounds without Crosby, but now that he is healthy and productive, expectations for the 2012 playoffs are extremely high in Pittsburgh.

5. Philadelphia Flyers: Danny Briere, RW

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    Briere had a sub-par regular season based on his standards, but he can make up for it by repeating his 2010 postseason performance. Briere had just 16 goals in the regular season, but he scored two goals in a thrilling 4-3 OT win in Game 1 against the Penguins.

    In 2010, Briere had a whopping 30 points in the postseason to lead the No. 7-seed Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals. If he has a repeat performance and the Flyers win the Cup this year, he might get a statue right next to Rocky.

    Briere may not be the Flyers' most important player just yet, but if he goes on a hot streak, he will step into that role. The Flyers could go all the way if Briere becomes as dangerous as he has been in past postseasons.

6. New Jersey Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk, LW

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    The leading scorer for the Devils signed a 15-year, $100 million contract in 2010, and it's time for him to earn his paycheck. 

    Kovalchuk had his best season in New Jersey, collecting 37 goals and 83 points. He has never won a playoff series, and this may be his best chance yet against an inexperienced Florida Panthers team. He scored two goals in the teams' four matchups this season.

    Kovalchuk needs to be on top of his game, because goaltender Martin Brodeur is not getting any younger. If the offense and Kovalchuk gets going early on in the playoffs, watch out for the Devils train. 

7. Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin, LW

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    The Washington Capitals have vastly underachieved in the NHL playoffs with Ovechkin leading the squad, even though they have been a top-three seed in the past four seasons. Maybe their luck will change now that they are the underdog against the defending champions.

    Ovechkin had a mediocre season, despite leading the team with 65 points. He scored 38 goals in the campaign. 

    But Ovechkin's legacy as one of the best players in NHL history will hinge on how he performs in the postseason. The pressure will be on him to perform in the playoffs until he actually does. With his talent, Washington could pull off the first-round upset.

8. Ottawa Senators: Craig Anderson, G

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    The journeyman goaltender had a performance for the ages with the Colorado Avalanche in 2009, when he had 51 saves in a 1-0 OT victory in a first-round matchup against the top-seed San Jose Sharks. Anderson will try to find that magic once again as he goes up against another No. 1 seed in the New York Rangers.

    Anderson owned a 2.84 goal-against average in the regular season. He will have to perform better if the Senators wish to advance past the Rangers.

    The Rangers have more depth than the Senators, but if Anderson has a big series and keeps each game close, the Senators have a decent shot to pull off the upset.