Jonathan Toews is the best all-around player on the Chicago Blackhawks and may be able to claim that title on a league-wide basis.
When it comes to making things happen in the offensive zone, winning faceoffs and playing defense, Toews and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins may be in a class by themselves.
Patrick Kane is Chicago's most dynamic offensive player. When it comes to creativity, stick-handling and firing a dangerous shot, Kane is in a class with Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings and few others.
While Toews and Kane have each won Conn Smythe Trophies—Toews in 2010 and Kane last year—another Blackhawk may be in line to pick up that award this year if Chicago can make it three Stanley Cups in the last five seasons.
Patrick Sharp may be a shade below Toews and Kane in overall talent, but he just might be their most important player this year as the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway.
If you look at the top of the Blackhawks' season-long statistics, it is Sharp who sits on top. He led the team with 34 goals and 78 points and was one of three players on the team to play in all 82 regular-season games (Nick Leddy and Brent Seabrook were the others).
He made the Canadian Olympic team this year and helped bring home the gold medal.
He is a dynamic skater with one of the best shots in the league. While he does not possess the eye-catching puck-handling skills of Kane, he is quite strong in that area.
His all-around play has been solid as well. Extra Skater indicates that Sharp had a 57.2 Corsi percentage, ranking fourth on the team. He has that innate sense that comes from experience combined with a high hockey IQ, which allows him to be in the right spot at the right time in the offensive, defensive and neutral zones.
Kane (lower body) and Toews (upper body) both missed the final weeks of the regular season, so they could both be ready to play at the start of the postseason. Keeping both of those stars out of the lineup was a logical choice for head coach Joel Quenneveille and general manager Stan Bowman.
However, just because Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune reports Kane and Toews have been impressive in skating drills prior to the team's puck drop in Game 1 of the series against the St. Louis Blues does not mean that both of those players will be in All-Star form when they start to play again.
It may take a game, two or longer before either one or both are playing at the level Quenneville and Blackhawks fans are used to seeing from them.
That's why the play of Sharp will be so important.
He has always been one of the team's stars and clearly has a talent for putting the puck in the net. He has reached or exceeded the 30-goal mark four times in his career.
Sharp, 32, has always been one of the higher-profile Blackhawks because of his willingness to be interviewed for television, radio, newspaper and the Internet, as well as a strong sense of humor and a ready smile.
However, he has never lacked in his game preparation and his game has been at a high level for a long time.
You [talk about] the hockey gods. Every playoff game, it seems to be a fine line between winning and losing. You’ve got to be comfortable playing in those tight games. I think both teams are. I would expect the series to be tight one-goal games every game.
Who will be the Blackhawks' most important player in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs?
Sharp is getting that message to his teammates as well as Blackhawks fans. He has a history of coming alive in big games, as he did in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins last year. Sharp scored a third-period power-play goal that gave the Blackhawks the lead and kept the Bruins from seizing momentum in that game.
While Sharp's blistering wrist shot accounts for the majority of his goals, that one was the result of hard work around the net and sticking with it in the dirty areas of the ice, even if he had to pay a price.
Sharp is not just a key member of the supporting cast. He is one of the most dependable players on the team. As Toews and Kane work their way back into their own roles, look for Sharp to take charge and demonstrate that he is one of the top stars in the game.
Whether Toews and Kane are ready to play their best hockey or not, look for Sharp to lead the way. He has proven himself on the ice and as a leader.
He knows exactly what is expected of him at the most important time of the year.