The Top 10 Unsung Heroes of the 2013 NHL Playoffs

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2013

The Top 10 Unsung Heroes of the 2013 NHL Playoffs

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    Pursuing the Stanley Cup requires strength up and down the lineup.

    Top starts need to carry their team when necessary, but that's never enough. When Wayne Gretzky was part of four Cup championship teams in the 1980s, he was surrounded by stars and role players who helped him win the title.

    The four teams remaining alive for the Stanley Cup have many unheralded players who are more than carrying their weight. Here's our look at the 10 most unsung heroes in this year's postseason.

10. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Corey Crawford is the No. 1 goalie for the team that finished with the most points in the league in the regular season.

    Crawford had a 19-5-5 record during the regular season with a 1.94 goals against average, a .926 save percentage and three shutouts. Even with those numbers on his side, the Blackhawks went into the postseason holding their collective breath about their goaltending.

    He was one of the main reasons Chicago was eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Coyotes last year. Three of their four losses to the Coyotes came in overtime, and two of the sudden-death goals that he gave up were butter-soft.

    Crawford has put last year's failures behind him. Even though he shared the goaltending duties with Ray Emery this season, he has been the lone Chicago goaltender to see action this year in the postseason. He has posted a 1.67 GAA and a .938 save percentage.

    But it's more than the numbers. After he gave up a soft goal to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 of the conference semifinals, he closed the door and stopped several great chances.

    That allowed the Blackhawks to hang in and win the game in the third period. He was just as strong in Game 7 as they clinched the hard-fought series and moved on to the Western Conference Final against the Los Angeles Kings.

    Crawford was the Blackhawks' soft underbelly; now he represents their stiff spine.

9. Derick Brassard, New York Rangers

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    In the late stages of the regular season, the Rangers were struggling to earn a spot in the playoffs. One of the players they added at the trade deadline was Derick Brassard from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    While Brassard had the reputation of a hard-working player who left everything on the ice, he did not appear to be a difference-maker.

    However, he was just that in the postseason for the New York Rangers. He scored two goals and 10 assists in 12 games. He was vital in their first-round victory over the Washington Capitals and he was one of the players that the Boston Bruins had to concern themselves with in the conference semifinal.

    Brassard was the Rangers' leading scorer in the postseason. He had five more points than Mats Zuccarello, who was ranked second.

    Not bad for a Columbus castoff.

8. Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings

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    The Los Angeles Kings are not a one-man team. Goaltender Jonathan Quick is the defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and he will get strong consideration for the award again if the Kings can get back to the Stanley Cup Final.

    But Quick needs support from his offensive teammates. That has been a big issue this year, as the Kings are averaging 1.93 goals per game in the playoffs.

    One player who is doing his part is Justin Williams. He has scored five goals and posted two assists in this year's playoffs.

    His best performance came in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks in the conference semifinal round. He scored both goals for the Kings in their 2-1 victory that allowed them to move on to the Western Conference Final.

    Williams scored 11 goals and 22 assists during the regular season and also finished with a plus-15 rating.

    He proved to be a key role player for head coach Darryl Sutter in the regular season, and he has found a way to come through in the clutch in the playoffs.

7. Damien Brunner, Detroit Red Wings

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    Damien Brunner served notice during the postseason that he is going to be an important player for the Detroit Red Wings for years to come.

    He is a swift skater who knows how to put the puck in the net. He led the Red Wings with five goals in the playoffs and also had four assists. His nine points ranked third on the team.

    Brunner played a key role for the Red Wings in their opening-round victory over the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks. He scored in overtime of the fourth game, which allowed the Red Wings to tie the series.

    Brunner has a nose for the goal and he has the ability to accelerate and find open ice. When he gets his opportunities, he has the ability to find the open corners of the net and get the Wings on the board.

6. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins are the most explosive team in the NHL, and they have proved it in the postseason.

    They are averaging a league-best 3.92 goals per game in the playoffs, even after getting blanked in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final by the Boston Bruins.

    The Penguins are loaded with stars, but they also have supportive role players. One of the most important role players on head coach Dan Bylsma's team is defenseman Paul Martin, who has scored two goals and has seven assists. He is the Pens' second-leading scorer among defenseman behind Kris Letang.

    Martin also has a plus-six rating and is one of the Penguins' best blue line puck carriers. He is also solid defensively, and that's the main reason he is in the team's lineup.

5. Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings

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    One of the key factors in any team's ability to survive and advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs is having a defenseman or two who can jump into the play and score key goals.

    Slava Voynov is filling that role for the offensively challenged Los Angeles Kings this year. Voynov has scored four goals and five assists during the postseason.

    He does not pepper the net with shots, as he has been credited with 26 shots on goal. However, 15.4 percent of those shots have found the back of the net. That's second among blue liners who are still playing for the four teams in the conference final rounds.

    Three of Voynov's goals are game-winners, which cements his place on this list. He also has a plus-eight rating and is averaging 21:08 of ice time per game.

4. Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks have a slew of role players who make consistent contributions. That's part of the reason they have been able to overcome a sub-par playoff scoring performance from captain Jonathan Toews, who has scored one goal in the postseason.

    One of those role players is hard-edged Bryan Bickell, who brings a physical presence and will go to the dirty areas in front of the net. If you want to stop Bickell with a body check or an elbow, go ahead and take your best shot. He is not going to back down from the battle.

    Bickell will make key plays on the offensive end. He got the Blackhawks off to a good start in the playoffs when he scored an overtime goal versus the Minnesota Wild in the opening game of the first-round playoff series.

    He has scored six goals in the playoffs, which puts him in a tie for second on the team. He scored the go-ahead goal in the crucial Game 6 victory at Detroit in the conference semifinal, stationing himself directly in front of Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard and then powering the puck into the net even though he had to battle a Red Wing defenseman and the goaltender.

    Head coach Joel Quenneville knows that the Blackhawks are not a physical team, but Bickell is one player who will take the punishment and continue to drive the net on a consistent basis.

3. Michal Handzus, Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks acquired Michal Handzus for a fourth-round pick at the trade deadline from the San Jose Sharks. It was one of the least notable deals that any of the contenders made at the time.

    Handzus was thought to be a player who could help the Blackhawks in the faceoff circle and give them occasional offensive support. However, he was not expected to be a regular contributor. He is the team's fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs with two goals and six assists.

    His biggest play came against the Red Wings. With Chicago trailing the Red Wings 2-1 early in the third period of Game 6 and already down 3-2 in the series, the Blackhawks were in trouble.

    However, Handzus went to the front of the net where he was ignored by the Red Wing defense. He waited patiently to get Jimmy Howard out of position and flicked the puck into the far corner of the net (video above).

    That goal in the first minute of the third period lifted the pressure and the Blackhawks went on to win the game.

    Handzus has a plus-seven rating during the postseason. Not bad for a player who seemed an afterthought at the trade deadline.

2. Tomas Vokoun, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Tomas Vokoun may or may not prove himself as a worthy Stanley Cup-winning goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    He faces a tough test from the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, and if the Penguins should survive their encounter with the "other" Black and Gold team, they will get tested severely by the Western Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final.

    Vokoun has proven that he is able to stop a full-fledged panic. That's just what the Penguins were in during their first-round series against the New York Islanders. The series was tied 2-2 after four games and Marc-Andre Fleury had been awful in the Pittsburgh net.

    When Dan Bylsma inserted Vokoun in the lineup, it was a desperate move. However, Vokoun has made it look brilliant. The Penguins went on to close out the Islanders in six games and then defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games.

    Vokoun has a 6-2 record, a 1.98 GAA and a .937 save percentage. He still has much to prove for the Pens, but he has performed above expectations through this point in the postseason.

1. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins

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    Torey Krug has come from out of nowhere to give the Boston Bruins a huge boost in the playoffs.

    When the Bruins were hit with injuries to defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden, they were forced to turn to three rookie blueliners to take their place.

    Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton had seen quite a bit of action for the Bruins this year, but Krug spent the majority of the year in Providence with the Bruins' minor league affiliate. He played one game for Boston this year after appearing in two regular-season games for them last year.

    However, he seemingly has become a mainstay for them overnight. He scored four goals in the five-game series victory over the New York Rangers, punishing All-World goalie Henrik Lundqvist with his hard, accurate shot.

    Krug is easily dismissed at first sight because he's just 5'9" and 180 pounds, but the 22-year-old has excellent skating speed, surprising strength and the skill to carry the puck out of trouble.

    While the Bruins' injured defensemen have returned to the lineup, Krug also remains in a Boston uniform. He will likely wear his No. 47 uniform throughout the rest of the playoffs and for many years to come.

    He appears to be a rising star.