The cliche in all sports goes that stars are born in the postseason. That only truly transcendent talents can reach high enough to propel their side to a championship, and those who fail simply don't have the "killer instinct" or "clutch gene."
By now, most fans know that's poppycock. There are plenty of mitigating factors that go into championship runs, and something called a "clutch gene" is somewhere far down the list.
That being said, you do need stars to compete in sports—and that's especially the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Whether it's a red-hot goalkeeper (the most usual suspect), a jaw-dropping offensive performer or the always underrated defenseman, teams cannot make it through the Stanley Cup gauntlet without superstar performances. There are just too many mitigating factors, as secondary stars show up only intermittently and home-ice advantage seems to hold less weight every year.
Teams need their stars to step up—badly. Just ask Vancouver Canucks or Montreal Canadiens fans what happens when top players underperform. It's a one-way ticket out of the postseason, no matter how high of a seed you start the playoffs as.
The Los Angeles Kings proved just how little seeding means in the NHL playoffs last season and it's very likely we see something similar this postseason.
With that in mind, let's take a quick look at a few players whose performances have captivated the hockey world's attention.
Top Offensive Player: David Krejci (C, Boston Bruins)
The Bruins' scoring has been a bit sporadic throughout these playoffs, having both pummeled Toronto in Games 3 and 4 only to return home to TD Garden on Friday and lay an egg. Boston is surprisingly 1-2 against the Maple Leafs on its home ice and will needed to sweep in Toronto to avoid a dreaded Game 7.
Despite the inconsistencies of his team overall, Krejci has again been marvelous through the first five games. Just as he had two years ago in the Bruins' Stanley Cup triumph, the 27-year-old center has been the driving force behind the team's offensive production.
The line with Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton has created an overwhelming amount of Boston's scoring opportunities in this series, with that trio carrying a playoff-high plus-seven in the plus/minus column.
Through five games, Krejci's 11 points also lead the entire playoffs and he has scored on an astounding 38.5 percent of his shots on goal. Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin the only player within three points of Krejci overall and his shooting percentage is by far the best among players with 10 or more attempts.
Plus, his heroic hat trick, including a game-winner in overtime in Game 4 against Toronto was something special. Krejci long been one of the league's most overlooked talents, a guy who puts up top-flight numbers every season only to be ignored once awards season comes rolling around.
We're a long way away from crowning the Conn Smythe winner, but one has a hard time making a case against Krejci at the moment.
Top Defenseman: Erik Karlsson (D, Ottawa Senators)
We're splitting hairs here between a bevy of solid performances. Kris Letang in Pittsburgh and Zdeno Chara in Boston have both been fantastic on both ends of the ice, so it would be hard to quibble with anyone arguing in their favor.
That being said, it's hard not to root for Karlsson—and he's made it even easier to do so by being brilliant in Ottawa's five-game drubbing of the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1.
Largely considered the best offensive defenseman in the league, Karlsson took no time trying to cement that reputation versus his Canadian rivals. His five assists are tied for fifth among all players this postseason, and he’s gotten a point in four of five games thus far this postseason.
Karlsson has scored six points overall and has a plus-five on/off split, both of which are tied for the most among defensemen.
Those impressive on/off numbers become particularly impressive considering lengthy ice time Karlsson has been racking up. He finished with at least 28 minutes on the ice in four of the five games against Montreal—the exception being Game 5's 6-1 shellacking. It almost feels like Tom Thibodeau is coaching the Senators the way Karlsson has been piling up the minutes.
And considering the 22-year-old (he'll be 23 later this month) is still recovering from a lacerated Achilles tendon, it’s truly astounding what he’s been able to do. Karlsson’s injury, which came with a heap of controversy, was one of the more disconcerting scenes in all of the NHL this past season. That he’s back from injury, which was supposed to keep him out four to six months, and playing this well bodes well for the Sens’ playoff chances.
Top Goaltender: Corey Crawford (G, Chicago Blackhawks)
There are plenty of arguments to be had at the offensive and defensive positions for "best performance of Round 1" distinction. We've already noted some of those players with a good argument against our choice, as is always the case when picking one player out of a massive pool.
That being said, there is no argument about the best goaltender of Round 1. Apologies to Jonathan Quick, but the display Corey Crawford has put on this postseason has been truly special.
With a quick 4-1 record, he helped vanquish the Minnesota Wild and take the top-seeded Blackhawks to Round 2. His goals-against average of 1.32 is far and away the best among netminders with any significant playing time thus far.
And some of Crawford's saves have been the stuff of legend. Zach Parise, the Wild's leading scorer during the regular season, had only one point in five games and will probably have nightmares about Crawford stopping good attempts until next season begins. Especially in Game 2, Parise got in good goal-scoring position only for Crawford to swat away shots like he was toying with a younger sibling.
The phrase "standing on his head" has become a yearly ritual among hockey analysts who don't have much else better to say. So we'll avoid that. What Crawford is doing isn't standing on his head anyway—he's breakdancing in the net like Chris Brown in Stomp the Yard.
It's unclear whether Crawford can keep up this pace going into Round 2. He was fantastic during the regular season while leading Chicago to the NHL's best record, so it stands to reason he has a pretty good shot.
But for now, Crawford's goaltending in Round 1 is something we should appreciate in the moment.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: Follow @tylerconway22
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