The 2013 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are more than a week old, and just like in years gone by, there are a few players that have just a bit more at stake than others.
Some guys are just at that stage in their career where they need to prove that they can get things done in the postseason. Others are here for the first time, and want to avoid the early label as a postseason choker.
Some of the best skaters in the playoffs right now have gone through this stage in their careers. The early Pavel Datsyuk comes to mind, as does Joe Thornton during his early days with the San Jose Sharks.
Whatever the reason, some players have a few more chips pushed to the center of the table than their counterparts, so they have more to gain with strong performances.
The most obvious choice for this list, Jarome Iginla went to the Pittsburgh Penguins to do one thing and one thing only: win a Stanley Cup.
Yes, there's all the chatter about him eventually playing on a line with Sidney Crosby and the damage the duo could cause on a line together, but Pascal Dupuis and his goal-scoring touch have all but rendered those talks obsolete.
Iggy would play a fourth-line checking role if the Penguins asked him to—if he thought it would help earn him a ring. He'll turn 36 in July, and while this isn't his last chance to win a Cup, it may be his best chance one.
What He Has to Gain: His first Stanley Cup championship.
The San Jose Sharks just swept the Vancouver Canucks out of the playoffs and appear to have at least a couple of days to rest up for the next round. One of the big reasons for their advancement was depth. Not necessarily scoring depth—just the ability to always have guys out there on the ice who are trying to make big plays.
Whether it be via a goal or a hit or hustle.
Maybe it was just in Game 4, but Raffi Torres appeared to be flying out there. It's amazing what a change of scenery can do for a guy. With the Phoenix Coyotes, Torres was primarily an energy guy. A goon sent out on the ice to lay some smackdown.
With the Sharks he seems to have elevated his game. Honestly, who knew Torres could skate like that? He's reminded me a lot of Darren Helm through the first round, and that is mighty high praise.
What He Has to Gain: A new reputation as an outstanding bottom-six forward.
How good was Patrick Marleau against the Vancouver Canucks?
He used his speed on every shift, seemingly making thing happen nearly every time he touched the puck. It's almost as if the longtime San Jose Shark senses that a changing of the guard is underway, and there will only be so many chances to win the Stanley Cup with the team as it is now.
Both Joe Thornton and Marleau have contracts that expire in 2014. Joe Pavelski will also need a new deal at that point, and Dan Boyle will be a free agent as well.
Those are some serious pieces, and with the cap coming down the Sharks might not have room to keep them all.
2013 is probably one of the last two seasons that the Sharks can win with this makeup—something they are likely to continue doing if Marleau maintains his current scoring pace.
What He Has to Gain: A Stanley Cup (finally) and shedding the reputation as a guy who can't lead a team there.
After taking a stranglehold on the starting goaltender position for the Washington Capitals last season, Braden Holtby posted some outstanding numbers during the playoffs.
In 2012 he went 7-7, winning one seven-game series and dropping the second to Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Despite the devastating loss, Holtby's individual effort to hang with one of the best goalies in the league was worth of note.
He posted a 1.95 GAA while maintaining a .935 save percentage through 14 playoff games.
As fate would have it, Holtby and the Washington Capitals got the chance to avenge that tough playoff loss almost immediately—they drew the Rangers again in 2013 and appear fired up to down the Blueshirts.
Any questions surrounding Holtby being a flash in the pan are quickly fading as he's been even better this postseason. His GAA is 1.61 and his save percentage is .944.
What He Has to Gain: Back-to-back playoff runs with outstanding numbers will get some attention. If Holtby can carry the Caps farther in the playoffs, he could cement his reputation as a big-game netminder.
While Alex Ovechkin may have answered his regular season critics by suddenly erupting back to life from the right wing and posting 23 goals over the final 23 games of 2013, he still has some serious work in the postseason to accomplish.
While Sidney Crosby has already been to the Stanley Cup Finals twice and has won the ultimate prize, Ovie has yet to lead the Caps to the Eastern Conference Finals. For him to continue to be fairly compared to the Kid, a Cup must arrive on his shelf soon.
The best players in the world are often judged by what they can and can not do in the playoffs. If Ovechkin wants to go down as one of the better players of this generation, he's got to do some damage in the postseason.
What He Has to Gain: Everything. Ovechkin has already done just about everything a guy can do during the regular season. He's won three scoring titles and the Caps have more division championship banners than anyone in recent memory. That all doesn't mean anything without a Cup.
Over the summer some (more) concerning reports about Patrick Kane's extra-curricular activities emerged. This time, Deadspin published an entire recount of what appears to be a massive binger in Madison, Wisconsin.
While the media went into a tizzy about the hard-partying Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks didn't have anything to say on the matter. They clearly kept the conversations in house, and whatever they said to Kane over the subsequent days and months must have sank in.
Kane has been all business this season, and continues to be in the playoffs. He's never looked more dangerous, composed or focused.
What He Has to Gain: A reputation as an honest, hard-working hockey player and not just a part-time superstar/full-time frat boy. We are watching Kane grow up before our very eyes, and the result is scary.
Few pundits—if any—expected the New York Islanders to push the Pittsburgh Penguins to a three-game showdown for the right to advance out of the first round. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis, Kris Letang, Kris Kunitz, Jarome Iginla, James Neal and so on were supposed to be an unstoppable force against the Islanders.
Some seriously suspect goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed New York to hang around, and John Tavares has been a big part of the offensive push for the Isles. They've now knocked the Penguins' starting netminder from his perch and are looking to get to the backup Tomas Vokoun the same way (per NHL.com).
He scored the game-winning goal in Game 4 and the game-tying marker in a hard-fought Game 3.
If Taveres can help spearhead the Islanders to one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time, it would push his already blossoming career to new heights.
What He Has to Gain: A notch in his belt as a guy who can lead his team beyond the first round, and a reputation as a giant killer. He hasn't been scoring points at will, but both of his goals have been massive for the Islanders.
Phil Kessel has a rare chance to make a former team pay for trading him. All the holdout drama aside, the Toronto Maple Leafs paid a steep price for the All-Star sniper. One could easily argue that he's been worth the draft picks, as Kessel has been one of the top goal scorers in the NHL since arriving in Toronto.
This is a ghost-killer series for the soft-spoken Kessel.
He's never played well against his former team, but is starting to break out of that shell as the series continues. Kessel scored a goal in Game 2 and netted a power-play marker early in the third period during Game 3 to make it a two-goal game.
Toronto is currently down in the series 2-1, but Kessel emerging as a threat against his former team could be a deciding factor for the Leafs in this series moving forward.
What He Has to Gain: Kessel likely won't ever be able to put the final nail in the coffin when it comes to comparisons between himself and Tyler Seguin/Dougie Hamilton. Success in the playoffs tends to quiet a lot of onlookers however, and doing some damage against the Bruins would be a great way to start moving on for good.
Unlike Zach Parise and Ryan Suter—who both already have established postseason track records—Charlie Coyle was a bit of an unknown for the Minnesota Wild heading into the playoffs.
With Jason Pominville on the shelf to begin the series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Coyle suddenly found himself with a job among the top-six forwards in Minnesota. There may have been some questions about his readiness to step into such a prominent role so quickly during his rookie season, but the highly touted youngster hasn't disappointed.
He's been steady, posting two assists while throwing his body around whenever the opportunity presents itself. The 'Hawks have taken a physical edge with the Wild in this series, and Coyle is one of the few players that has answered the bell and paid a price.
What He Has to Gain: Coyle is a developing power-forward, and as such needs strong playoff performances to truly elevate himself to another level. These kinds of players can sometimes take a while to develop, but the 21-year-old hasn't looked out of place among a talented crop of Wild and Hawks players so far.
The Detroit Red Wings have had a legacy of making average netminders look good over the last two decades due to a high-powered offense and a strong defensive core anchored by Nicklas Lidstrom. In 2013, the offensive fireworks faded a bit and things in the defensive end didn't exactly go swimmingly.
On many nights, Jimmy Howard has had to be the best Red Wing and he hasn't let his teammates down often.
Heading into the quarterfinal series against the Anaheim Ducks, everyone knew that Howard was going to have to stand on his head to give Detroit a chance.
While he hasn't been perfect by any stretch, he's made the big saves when the Wings needed them most—a hallmark of good Detroit netminders. He's given up four goals twice, and has alternated between strong performances and mediocre ones.
How he closes out the next two or three games will do a lot to either improve or hurt his reputation as a netminder that the Wings can count on for the next half-decade.
What He Has to Gain: Being a goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings is one of the toughest positions in sports. It isn't as bad as trying to man the crease in Philadelphia, but when things go south the fingers tend to point towards the blue paint.
Howard has simple peace of mind to gain (as does management) by at least pushing the Ducks farther in this series with his stellar play. He can do that by simply returning to his end-of-season form.