Ranking the Biggest Difference-Makers in the 2013 NHL Conference Finals
The conference finals of the 2013 NHL playoffs haven't been as competitive as we expected given the fact that the four teams left are the past four Stanley Cup champions, but there has been no shortage of thrilling hockey.
One of the great things about playoff hockey is that fans never know who the hero is going to be each game. We have seen many stars struggle to play well at both ends of the ice in each conference, which has resulted in many role players making significant contributions to the outcomes of these games.
With that said, this is the time of the year when superstars' legacies are made and careers are defined. Those who raise their level of performance in the final two rounds of the playoffs often become legends and earn a lifetime of respect from their peers.
Let's look at the biggest difference-makers in the conference finals so far.
Author's Note: Players selected for this list based on a combination of individual contributions and team success.
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks
Patrick Sharp is one of the most experienced players on the Blackhawks, and he has performed at a high level in this year's playoffs while most of the team's other top-six forwards have failed to score consistently.
The 31-year-old winger leads the team with eight goals scored, and he has tallied three points (one goal, two assists) in the conference finals versus the Los Angeles Kings.
When the Blackhawks were facing a 1-0 deficit in the second period of the series opener, Sharp scored the equalizer, which energized his team. He also added two assists in Game 2 to help Chicago take a 2-0 series lead.
Sharp is a "big-game player," one whose contributions to the Blackhawks' success are evident on a nightly basis as someone who excels at even strength and on the power play.
Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks
Where would the Chicago Blackhawks be without Bryan Bickell?
That's not a question Blackhawks fans expected to be pondering at this stage of the playoffs, but the scoring production and physical play the veteran forward has provided has turned out be a very valuable part of Chicago's success.
With superstar forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane playing surprisingly poorly this postseason (three goals combined between the two), Bickell's seven goals, which puts him one behind Patrick Sharp's team lead, has given Chicago some much-needed secondary scoring.
In the conference finals, Bickell is the only Blackhawks player who has tallied a point in each game. He earned an assist on Marian Hossa's game-winning goal in the series opener, then scored in each of the next two games.
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
Zdeno Chara's brilliant defensive performance for the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final is one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin has zero points in three straight games. The veteran center hasn't gone through a three-game scoring drought since December 2010.
Chara was on the ice for 15 of Malkin's even-strength shifts in Game 2 and 17 of his 19 shifts during 5-on-5 play in Game 3. In that time, the Penguins' star forward was a minus-three and failed to get on the scoresheet.
Shutting down the Russian forward and the rest of Pittsburgh's offense in Game 3 required Chara to play 42:05 of ice time, the most of his Bruins career. Chara leads all NHL players with an average ice time of 29:24 per game in the postseason. The Bruins captain also ranks second on the team in hits (50) and blocked shots (31).
Malkin dominated the Bruins before this series with 25 points in 21 career games against them, and his inability to make an impact offensively in the conference finals can be directly attributed to Chara's defense.
Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
Patrice Bergeron isn't a very flashy player, but there aren't many NHL forwards who are more responsible in all three zones than the 27-year-old center.
He's been given the challenging task of shutting down the best player in the world, Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, and has done a magnificent job frustrating Pittsburgh's captain through three games.
In Game 3 on Wednesday, Bergeron did a tremendous job defending Crosby, limiting him to just three shots on goal. Bergeron's physical play, great stick work, faceoff success and consistent backchecking has resulted in Crosby's first three-game playoff scoring drought since the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
In addition to his great defense, Bergeron has also made an impact on offense. The Bruins center has two goals and an assist in the past two games, including the winning goal in double overtime of Game 3.
Without Bergeron's success against Crosby and clutch scoring (team-leading four goals in the third period or overtime), Boston wouldn't be one game away from another Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Slava Voynov, Los Angeles Kings
Slava Voynov was a reliable player for the Los Angeles Kings throughout the regular season, but he is proving to everyone during the playoffs that he's talented enough to become one of the league's premier offensive defensemen.
The 23-year-old Russian is tied for the playoff lead in goals scored by defensemen (five), four of which have been game-winning goals. His most recent game-winning goal was scored in the Kings' victory over the Blackhawks in Game 3 on Thursday.
Voynov is one of only four defensemen to score four game-winning goals in a playoff season, joining some of the best blueliners to play the game, according to TSN's stats guy.
Voynov leads Los Angeles in scoring during the conference finals with four points (one goal, three assists) in three games.
For an offense that has scored just 2.00 goals/game in the playoffs (fewest among the four conference finalists) and has not received consistent scoring from many of its top stars (Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Penner have combined for seven goals in 16 games), Voynov's offensive production from the blue line has been a huge part of the Kings' success.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs. He is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs.