What We've Learned About NHL's Top Superstars in Playoffs
Superstars often mean the difference between winning and losing in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This is a game that is about winning, and it's the winning that's done in the postseason that usually cements or denies a player's reputation as a superstar.
A high-scoring player is not necessarily a superstar. A player who can score 40 goals in the regular season—in a full 82-game schedule—will often earn a lot of money and headlines.
However, if that player can't produce at the same level in the postseason, the superstar label won't fit.
It's not just about scoring either. It's about making the key plays that help a team win the most important games on a consistent basis with a pass, a shot, a body check or a key save.
Here's what we've learned about the NHL's top superstars in this year's playoffs.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
Evgeni Malkin did not have his best regular season. He seems determined to make up for that during the playoffs.
Malkin is fully committed to doing everything he can to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup. While they had big problems with the eighth-seeded New York Islanders in the first round, Malkin was a dominant player.
Not only was he an offensive force, he was playing dominant defense. His ability to take away the puck and block shots was vital in the Penguins' sixth-game triumph that allowed them to advance.
Malkin had a goal and an assist in the Penguins 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators in Game 1 of the second-round series. He is tied with Boston's David Krejci for the league lead in postseason scoring with 13 points.
Malkin seems like he is just getting warmed up and he could be preparing for his second Conn Smythe Trophy.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy last year and he is one of the three finalists for the award this year.
He has been a consistently excellent puck stopper throughout his career.
He also knows he bears much of the responsibility for the New York Rangers' success. The Rangers are not a high-scoring team, even though they shockingly scored five times in their Game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
For the Rangers, it's usually a 1-0 or 2-1 game.
Lundqvist played like he was the best goalie in the world against the Caps. He registered back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7.
The Rangers go into nearly every game knowing that if they play their opponents even, they have an advantage nearly every night because they have Lundqvist in goal.
He is almost always better than they goalie guarding the opposite cage.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
On a team loaded with talented stars, Jonathan Toews is the most important and best player on head coach Joel Quenneville's roster.
Toews reeks with responsibility. If you need a key faceoff win, you send out Toews. If you need to stop an opposing center, you send out Toews. When you need a clutch goal, you send out Toews to either set it up or score it.
The first round of the playoffs was not one of the best moments of Toews's career. He did not score a goal and he had just two assists in the five games.
However, nothing is going to shake Quenneville's confidence in Toews. Whether he's streaking or slumping, he will be on the ice in all key moments. His teammates and coaching staff have complete confidence in him.
He's off to a slow statistical start in the playoffs, but he has not lost a bit of luster.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Zdeno Chara went through a somewhat difficult regular season.
He is still a big, powerful, dominant and hard-shooting defenseman. The Bruins captain can deliver thunderous body checks and he can carry the puck up the ice and make plays on the offensive end.
However, Chara struggled with giveaways during the regular season. He seemed vulnerable when the puck was near his feet and opponents got into his body with their own physical tactics. He seemed to lose the puck and lose leverage in many of those situations.
Those tendencies were not lost on the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first-round playoff series, however Chara's remarkable leadership and will to win were on display when it mattered most.
He had four assists in the Bruins 4-3 overtime win in Game 4, and he was one of the architects of the amazing Game 7 comeback.
With 1:22 left on the clock, he fired a rocket of a slap shot at James Reimer and Milan Lucic picked up the rebound and scored.
About 30 seconds later, he helped the Bruins win a puck battle beneath the goalline and then used his 6'9", 260-pound frame to screen Reimer as Patrice Bergeron fired home the goal that sent the game inot overtime.
Chara remains the Trencin Tower of Power (coined by the Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont) and he carries much of the Bruins' Stanley Cup hopes on his broad shoulders.
Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings
Forgive Henrik Zetterberg if he comes across as a reluctant superstar.
He is the Detroit Red Wings' captain, but this is the first year he has been in that role. Prior to this season, that role was manned by Nicklas Lidstrom, arguably the second-best defenseman in NHL history behind Bobby Orr.
Lidstrom is no longer with the Red Wings, as he stepped off into the world of retirement a year ago. Zetterberg seemed content to wear the "C" on the front of his sweater, but he was not performing like one throughout the majority of the season.
However, he has stepped up when his team needed him most. He provided leadership in the final week of the regular season when the Wings went 4-0 to clinch a playoff spot.
In the first round, he led the way for the Wings past the Anaheim Ducks. Zetterberg scored the overtime goal in Game 6 that tied the series, and he has scored eight points in the Wings first seven postseason games.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Sidney Crosby was the dominant player in the NHL through the first 36 games of the season. He was virtually unstoppable as the Penguins rolled to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
However, when a shattered jaw sent him to the injured list in late March, Crosby had to go through a period of significant rest and rehab through the final weeks of the regular season.
When he returned in the Penguins' second playoff game against the New York Islanders, he did not seem like the same free-wheeling player he had been before the injury.
Crosby is scoring at a high level—he has nine points in six games—but you can tell that Crosby is still somewhat protective of his jaw and face.
It's perfectly understandable and it would not be surprising if that continued through the second round of the playoffs.
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings may soon be on a collision course with the Chicago Blackhawks for the Western Conference championship.
Unlike recent Stanley Cup winners, the Kings did not lose their first-round series a year after winning the Cup. The Kings are deep, talented and powerful.
They have a number of stars, but Anze Kopitar is the player who must step up if the Kings are going to beat the best competition in the NHL.
Kopitar struggled in the second half of the regular season and he has scored just one goal and three assists in his first seven playoff games. However, he is thoroughly involved and there is no reason to think he's not going to pick it up and go on a hot streak very soon.
He's too fast, strong, intelligent and skilled for him to stay in a funk much longer.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto/Getty Images
Erik Karlsson has to feel like he is swimming upstream against a strong current.
Everything was positive for Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens, but the Sens have a much tougher assignment against the explosive Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins can throw out a boatload of talented offensive players who can take over a game. In addition to Malkin and Crosby, the Penguins have Pascal Dupuis, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang. All of the above can dominate.
Karlsson is not alone, but if he does not take over games with his speed and creativity, the Senators have little chance.
The pressure on Karlsson, who has scored one goal and five assists in the postseason, is immense. If he does not come through with overwhelming production, it seems likely that the Sens' season will come to an end against Pittsburgh.