With the second round nearing, there are four players who are vital to their teams' success if they want to advance to the conference finals.
The Nashville Predators are the only team that has officially advanced, but with three other teams leading 3-1 in their series, I have highlighted players who will decide their second-round matchups.
Jonathan Quick, G, L.A. Kings
Jonathan Quick has been the savior for the L.A. Kings in their series against the Vancouver Canucks. Quick has held the high-octane Canucks offense to just seven goals in four games and has all but clinched their spot in the second round.
Quick has developed into one of the best goalies in the NHL and is having his best year as a pro this year.
The Kings are built around their outstanding goalie and team defense. If Quick doesn’t continue to excel in the playoffs, the Kings have no chance.
The Kings offense was one of the worst in the entire NHL, only scoring 2.3 goals per game in the regular season, and they have the worst offense of any team in the playoffs.
Quick may be the most important goalie in the playoffs.
Shea Weber, D, Nashville Predators
The Predators were the first team to clinch a spot in the second round and one of the reasons why was the outstanding play of their All-Star defenseman, Shea Weber.
Weber is not only trying to bring a title to Nashville, but he is also playing for his next big contract. After not getting dealt at the trade deadline, the Predators decided to go all-in and try to win before Weber leaves as a free agent.
Weber is a great defenseman mainly because he is good at all facets of the game. He is one of the best when in his own end and can help the offense by being the fourth scoring option when in the opponents' end.
While the Predators' success is built upon being a balanced team, Weber is the most important individual player. Pekka Rinne wouldn’t be nearly as good if Weber wasn’t clearing the shooting lanes and knocking opponents off their mark.
While Weber may leave Nashville once the season is over, he can still help the Predators win a cup before he leaves.
Mike Smith, G, Phoenix Coyotes
In what has been one of the most exciting series in the first round, the Phoenix Coyotes have managed to win three times in overtime mainly because first-year Coyotes netminder Mike Smith has stifled the potent Blackhawks offense.
Smith looks like he has found his groove with the Coyotes, and after having his best regular season as a pro, he has found similar success in the playoffs. With much concern that Smith's success wouldn’t transition to the playoffs, he has silenced his critics and been the reason why the Coyotes have a 3-1 edge against the Blackhawks.
Smith has actually improved in the playoffs despite playing against one of the better offenses in the NHL. He has improved on both his GAA and save percentage in a time when most goalies crumble under the pressure.
We shouldn’t be surprised, since last season in three playoff appearances with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he found success—even if it was just mop-up duty.
The Coyotes' defensive strategy certainly helps, but without Smith, the Coyotes wouldn’t have even made the playoffs—let alone be on the verge of reaching the second round. If the Coyotes want to advance, Smith will have to continue his outstanding play.
Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis Blues
When Jaroslav Halak went down with an ankle injury in the second period of Game 2, Brian Elliott stepped in and guided the Blues to three straight wins over the San Jose Sharks.
Elliott and Halak were the best goalie combination in the regular season, but when the playoffs began, the Blues decided to start Halak. Once Halak went down, Elliott was able to put the Blues on his back and has them one game away from the second round.
With Halak’s health in question, if the Blues want to continue to have success in the second round, Elliott will need to continue to dazzle between the pipes.
We shouldn’t be surprised by Elliott, as he was actually the better of the Blues' two goalies during the regular season. Elliott had the best GAA and save percentage in the NHL in the regular season and the Blues showed their confidence in him by signing him to a two-year extension in January.
The Blues are very similar to the Kings, Predators and the Coyotes, as they are defensive teams. If Elliott regresses even in the slightest bit, the Blues will struggle to win in the second round.
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