Of all the improbable stories in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, perhaps Bryan Bickell's is the most unbelievable.
Bickell, who will be skating on left wing in the Stanley Cup Final for the Chicago Blackhawks on their first line with center Jonathan Toews and right wing Patrick Kane, is tied with Patrick Sharp as the team's leading goal scorer.
Bickell has used his size, strength and guts to position himself near the front of the net on a regular basis. He has absorbed elbows, shoulders, knees and sticks, but he has held his ground.
Bickell has found the back of the net eight times and he also has five assists. Bickell has scored two game-winning goals in the playoffs.
Bickell, 27, is not an NHL neophyte, like Boston's Torey Krug. The Bruins called Krug up from their minor-league affiliate in Providence when injuries hit the team's defensive crew, and he responded with four goals in five games.
Bickell has played three full seasons with the Blackhawks in addition to parts of three others. He has never scored more than 17 goals in a season. Bickell scored nine goals in each of the last two seasons.
Bickell has never distinguished himself in the postseason prior to this year. He suited up four times in the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run in 2010 and had one assist. He scored two goals and two assists in five games during a first-round loss to the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, and he had two goals in the six-game loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last year.
Bickell's rise to prominent first-line performer has been vital to the Blackhawks' success. While Toews has just one goal and Kane was slumping prior to Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, Bickell has been a consistent performer in each of the three playoff rounds.
The primary factor behind Bickell's success has been his size, strength and aggressiveness. Bickell is a 6'4", 233-pound stud with a bit of a nasty streak. He can play in the corners and he can go to the front of the net and take a pounding and still make plays.
The Blackhawks are largely a speed and finesse team—they finished last in the league in hits—so Bickell's physical presence is sorely needed.
Putting a big man in front of the net was vital during the Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup run. Dustin Byfuglien did the job for the Blackhawks and opponents simply could not move him.
Bickell is not quite as big as Byfuglien (6'5" and 265 pounds), but he's been nearly as tough to move. The Blackhawks have not had that kind of net-front presence since trading Byfuglien just weeks after the team won the Stanley Cup. That's why Bickell is so important to his team's Stanley Cup chances.
There's more to Bickell than just muscle. He is a surprising skater with a heavy wrist shot and he's also a slick passer. That characteristic has not been lost on Toews, who has been impressed with some of his linemate's dishes.
“He’s got the confidence as a player to make some moves, make some nice passes,” Toews told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But more and more, he’s understanding, especially in these playoffs, there are some situations where less is more.”
Bickell has been a vital performer thus far in the postseason. It's clear that he is going to have to do even more if the Blackhawks are going to beat the Bruins and come home with their second Stanley Cup in four years.
The Bruins have a stellar and hard-hitting defensive team. They gave up two goals in four games to the Pittsburgh Penguins as they shut down the highest-scoring team in the league.
It doesn't seem likely that Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is going to get beaten on any long, unscreened shots. If the Blackhawks are going to score, they are going to have to go to the front of the net and get deflections and rebounds.
Bickell has done that better than anyone else on the Blackhawks through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Bickell's sudden growth on the ice is likely to result in a big payoff. He is in the final year of a contract that pays him $600,000 per season, according to CapGeek.com.
He is likely to get a very healthy bump in pay.
That pay raise may not come from the Blackhawks. The salary cap is dropping from $70.2 million to $64.3 million, and the Blackhawks don't have much cap maneuverability at this point.
Chicago is committed to paying just under $62.7 million in 2013-14, and if the team wants to keep Bickell, general manager Stan Bowman will have to make several roster adjustments.
Bickell can feel fairly secure when considering his future. But right now, it's about continuing to be a force in the offensive zone and doing battle with the Bruins.
If he can maintain the level of success that he's had in the first three rounds of the playoffs, Bickell will have a very good chance of raising the Stanley Cup for the second time in his career—and then receiving a sizable increase in pay this summer.