The 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs are well underway, but you wouldn't know it if you looked around the league at some certain absentee stars.
The playoffs are usually where the best and brightest goal-scorers come out and red-hot goaltenders come out to play, and that's been the case for some talents. Patrick Kane's unselfish play for Chicago has been a revelation, while Brian Elliott has almost single-handedly given the Blues a 2-0 series lead over the defending-champion Kings.
That being said, not every star has been Kane or Elliott. Some haven't even lived up to their regular season form, which puts their team in a hole heading into Sunday's critical Game 3 action. And other players are simply working their way back from injury; the performance is there, it's just keeping it over the seven-game series that will be the key.
With four critical Game 3s taking place across the league, it's time for these stars to return to form before it's too late. Here is a quick breakdown of a few players who are most critical to their teams' success in the going forward.
Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins)
Donning a bulky mask that made him the butt of many jokes on Twitter, the Penguins captain finally returned to action on Friday—and he didn’t miss a beat. Crosby scored two goals in the first seven-plus minutes he was on the ice, asserting his dominance against a hapless Islanders defense.
The 25-year-old center was playing in his first game in a month, as he was recovering from a broken jaw suffered in late March. He wore a protective facemask, which will likely be present throughout Pittsburgh’s run through the playoffs.
While Crosby’s initial few minutes were the stuff out of a storybook, the tide quickly turned after the first period. The Islanders mounted a torrid comeback, winning Game 2, 4-3, to even the series up. Most (if not all) of that blame falls on the team’s defense, which seemingly got too comfortable with the big first-period lead.
Nevertheless, it became pretty apparent in Crosby’s 23:21 average time on the ice that he was still working himself into hockey shape. After winning his first seven faceoffs, the 25-year-old star finished with only 14 wins against 12 losses. That’s a perfectly fine figure for someone of a lesser caliber, but was indicative of Crosby still not being at 100 percent.
As the Penguins’ Twitter feed after Game 2 noted, Crosby was well aware that he had a little rust on his skates:
Pittsburgh Penguins @penguins
Crosby on return: "Definitely a little rust but there’s not a lot of time so I’ve got to find a way to create things out there & do better”2013-5-4 02:35:29
It will be even more critical with Evgeni Malkin not practicing on Saturday. The Penguins are likely too talented to lose this series overall, but they also don’t want this going too long.
Zach Parise (LW, Minnesota Wild)
The Wild came into this series knowing that their backs were already against the wall. Making their first postseason in five years, Minnesota barely scraped into its Western Conference matchup against Chicago—the NHL’s leader in points this regular season.
With goalie Niklas Backstrom struggling with injuries and missing the first two games, it was clear the Wild were going to need to outscore the Blackhawks.
Apparently Minnesota’s leading scorer Zach Parise didn’t get the memo. Though two games, the 28-year-old Parise has more penalty minutes (two) than points scored (zero). He attempted seven shots on goal in the Wild’s 5-2 loss in Game 2, walking away with a minus-three line and leaving many to wonder what’s going on with the young star.
Of course, Corey Crawford deserves some credit for that. The Chicago goalie has been fantastic in this series, blocking a bevy of Wild shots that would have gone in against someone not standing on their head.
Nevertheless, with the series heading back to Minnesota, it’s clear that Parise’s performance will heavily dictate the outcome. He was the Wild’s leading scorer this season with 38 points, both being the team’s top creator of shots for himself and others.
To put it another way, Minnesota is looking at a sweep if Matt Cullen continues to be its leading scorer. The 36-year-old is a solid rotational player in spare minutes, but only superstars can propel teams against insurmountable odds.
If Parise gets on the board Sunday, the Wild might just have a (minuscule) chance. If not, break out the brooms come Game 4.
Jimmy Howard (G, Detroit Red Wings)
During the regular season, the Red Wings subsisted on being one of the smartest teams in the league. Their veteran roster doesn’t have the light-it-up scorers like a Crosby or Patrick Kane. Instead, it had a group of players who simply knew where they had to be at all times on the ice.
Almost like a hockey version of the Boston Celtics, Detroit relied on gritty veterans like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to get the job done. And while the Wings’ 2.5 goals per game average was only ordinary—it ranked 19th in the league—those smarts allowed Detroit to become one of the NHL’s most reliable defensive teams in the league.
At the back line, picking up for what little mistakes were made, was goalie Jimmy Howard. A stalwart presence in between the pipes, Howard finished the regular season with a 23-13-7 record and 2.13 goals against average and a 92.3 save percentage. Both of the latter percentages were top 10 among goalies this season, and Howard was arguably the biggest thing Detroit had going in its favor.
Fast-forward two playoff games and Howard has been an utter mess. His 2.99 goals against average ranks 15th among goalies who have appeared this postseason, ahead of only Jonas Hiller and Evgeni Nabokov.
He was at the center of Detroit’s Game 2 collapse, which is only more disconcerting heading into Game 2. Howard’s been better at home this season for the most part, and the Wings better hope that trend continues.