NHL Playoffs 2014: Players Who Mean the Most to Their Teams' Title Hopes

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NHL Playoffs 2014: Players Who Mean the Most to Their Teams' Title Hopes
Tony Gutierrez

The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs feature 16 very different hockey teams.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the defensive-minded Boston Bruins who hang their hat on their stingy, physical play.

On the other, you have the Anaheim Ducks who led the NHL in goals per game this year with an average of 3.21

And in the middle are fourteen other teams who play their own unique styles and believe in their own unique concepts. 

Yet, there is one thing that all of these teams do have in common, and that is the fact that there is one player on each of their rosters who possesses the ability to single-handedly lead a championship run.

Below are the most prominent.

 

Paul Stastny, C, Colorado Avalanche 

Rich Lam/Getty Images

If the first three games of the 2014 NHL Playoffs are any indication of Paul Stastny's importance to Colorado's success, then the Avalanche's front office might want to get him signed—his contract is up at the end of the season. 

Here are his statistics heading into Game 4:

Paul Stastny: 2014 Playoff Stats
Goals Assists Points Game-Winning Goals Shots +/-
3 4 7 1 5 2

NHL.com

Though his rookie teammate Nathan MacKinnon also has seven points, it's been the timeliness of Stastny's efforts that has really stood out. 

In Game 1, with the Avs trailing the Wild 4-3, Stastny scored from the bottom of the left circle with 14 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. He got his second goal a couple minutes later, sliding the puck past Ilya Bryzgalov to give Colorado the victory.

Though he finished fifth on the team in scoring during the regular season, no one is more important to Colorado's Stanley Cup aspirations than Stastny.

During a time of year when will takes precedence over skill and when the clutch gene becomes more valuable than gold, Stastny's performance will go hand in hand with Colorado's success, or lack thereof.

 

Tuukka Rask, G, Boston Bruins 

Winslow Townson

With Rask anchoring the defense, the Bruins finished second in the NHL in fewest goals allowed per game this season. That dominance has continued in the playoffs, with Boston surrendering just two goals through three games.

Can Tuukka continue his brilliant goaltending and avoid a meltdown against the Red Wings? Detroit is a veteran group. All they need is one bad game from Rask to build their confidence and give them the energy to pull off the upset.

Assuming he maintains his consistent play and the Bruins get out of the first round—which is a fairly safe bet considering how dominant they looked in Game 3 and how much deeper they are than Detroit—they will be matched up with another defensive-minded team in the Montreal Canadiens.

When neither team allows many goals, goaltending comes to the fore. 

Also, take a look at the scores of the four games Boston and Montreal played against one another this season:

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens during the 2014 Regular Season
Date Score
March 24th Montreal 2 -- Boston 1 (Shootout)
March 12th Boston 4 -- Montreal 1
January 30th Montreal 4 -- Boston 1
December 5th Montreal 2 -- Boston 1

NHL.com

There are a few conclusions to take away from this.

First of all, the losing team in each game scored just one goal.

While it might be a stretch to assume this is nothing more than coincidence, it could be evidence that this matchup will be all about who scores first and whose netminder makes more saves. 

The second takeaway is that Montreal won the season series 3-1 and held Boston to one goal on three occasions. 

If the Bruins struggle to score like they did during the regular season, Rask will be counted on to single-handedly keep them in games.

You might be thinking to yourself: "Sure, Rask is important to Boston, but so is every goalie to his respective team. Why is Rask on the list ahead of other goaltenders?"

There's an interesting phenomenon in sports—especially in professional sports like the NHL where seasons are so long—that results in teams becoming accustomed to teammates performing at a certain level. 

Carlos Osorio
Zdeno Chara and the rest of his Boston Bruins teammates expect a certain level of consistency from Rask. If he can't deliver, it could have drastic consequences.

In the case of the Bruins, they've come to expect Tuukka Rask to make the necessary saves to win games and provide a level of consistency as their last line of defense.

Even though every player is aware that the playoffs are an entirely different beast, their instincts will still lead them to feel comfortable with a 3-0 lead or confident that they'll be able to tie a 1-0 game because of Rask's dominance. 

If he struggles, Boston could be in trouble, since it's something they haven't really dealt with yet.

 

Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim Ducks

Debora Robinson/Getty Images

Often at times, we underestimate the effect that a captain can have on his teammates in professional sports.

We look at these athletically gifted players who are making millions of dollars and assume they have all the motivation they could ever need. 

And in many cases they do.

However, there is no limit to how driven and determined an athlete can be. Even after stepping out onto the ice with pure adrenaline coursing through their veins, there is still another level that can be reached. 

And that's where Ryan Getzlaf comes in for the Anaheim Ducks. 

Hockey players have long been labeled as the world's toughest athletes and for good reason. Getzlaf has already confirmed that stereotype this postseason, coming back from this:

To do this, just two days later:

Toughness aside, Getzlaf is also an incredible player, evidenced by his second-place finish in points during the regular season. He's a goal-scoring machine with a true knack for making the right pass on the offensive end.

Who is Most Important to His Team?

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However, it's going to be his toughness and his leadership as captain that will mean the most to Anaheim this postseason.

Some people might look at the injury he suffered and the fact that he came back as just another hockey player being a hockey player, but when events like that happen in the playoffs they can serve as a rallying cry for an entire team.

Getzlaf is an easy guy to root for, and an even easier guy to go to battle with. Will he carry the Ducks all the way to the finals? 

Update:

 All statistics courtesy of NHL.com

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