NHL Playoffs 2014: Players Who Will Determine Tightest First-Round Matchups

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NHL Playoffs 2014: Players Who Will Determine Tightest First-Round Matchups
Harry How/Getty Images

Despite ambivalence about the new playoff format, the first round of the 2014 NHL playoffs has produced more drama than anyone could have expected. With just two series ending in five games or fewer and nightly overtime contests, the divisional format has unfolded as well as anyone could have hoped.

Perhaps as a consequence of increased familiarity, there are more tight series this year than usual, regardless of gaps in regular-season point differentials. Teams currently face a razor-thin margin for error, and while "puck luck" can often make the difference, stars are the ones who see the vast majority of the ice time in clutch situations.

With that in mind, here are a few key game-changers who will determine the fate of some of this year's tightest series.

 

Jonathan Quick, G, Los Angeles Kings

Ben Margot

Largely on the strength of his 2012 Stanley Cup run, Jonathan Quick has earned a reputation as one of the league's most clutch postseason goalies. However, apart from his dazzling championship run, Quick has largely turned in unspectacular playoff performances.

Quick appeared as if he was on his way to a devastating playoff dud this year, as he conceded 17 goals in three losses to start the series. Since then, though, Quick's performance has turned around, culminating in a dominating Game 5 shutout. According to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, the lack of traffic in front of Quick has made life significantly easier for the L.A. goaltender:

"We saw (in Games 1 and 2) that when guys are bumping him and in the crease, it makes him stay in the net," Sharks wing Matt Nieto said. "He can't come out and play the angles the way he likes to."

The Sharks did precious little bumping, distracting or deflecting Saturday. Loose pucks in the crease were few and far between. Rebound opportunities were scant.

The current numbers are still ugly for Quick, whose save percentage remains well below 90 percent. However, with Sharks goalie Antti Niemi floundering as well, Quick's rejuvenation could be the deciding factor in this series:

The Kings have an opportunity to put tremendous pressure on San Jose with a Game 6 victory at the Staples Center. Quick has shown a penchant in the past for stealing road victories, and his performance could determine if the Kings can pull off an historic comeback.

 

Rick Nash, LW, New York Rangers

Al Bello/Getty Images

Rick Nash has posted gaudy regular-season scoring numbers in his first full season with the Rangers. Nash led New York with 26 goals in the regular season, but with just one goal in 17 playoff games with the Blueshirts, his postseason impact has turned up the pressure on Nash.

It's not even as if Nash has simply been unlucky. Despite dominating the puck for long stretches, Nash's high volume of shot attempts and lack of goals suggests an inefficiency that actively harms his team:

New York holds a 3-2 series lead, and given the Flyers' offensive issues for the majority of this series, Henrik Lundqvist might be enough to propel the Rangers into the second round. However, as ESPNNewYork.com's Katie Strang argues, Nash possesses the tools to be a game-changing postseason force that could portend a much deeper run:

What must be frustrating about Nash’s lack of success in the playoffs, to his team and to the fans, is the sort of tools with which he is equipped. He has been one of the Rangers’ top possession players all season, with one of the best Fenwick ratings in the regular season and through the first four games of this playoff series. He is a big body, strong on his skates and tough to move off the puck. But, beyond the size, he has the skill. Not many hulking forwards have the same sort of finesse Nash possesses, but he hasn’t seemed to find a way to exploit both facets of his game. 

Nash is not totally vital to the Rangers' hopes against Philadelphia. But if New York is to translate their talent into a long-awaited championship run, point production from Nash is an indispensable ingredient in future rounds.

 

Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It's not hard to find the correlation between Avalanche wins and Nathan MacKinnon's production. In three Colorado wins, the 18-year-old MacKinnon has compiled two goals, eight assists and 10 shots on goal. In two losses, MacKinnon has no points and just three shots on goal.

The likely Calder Trophy winner, MacKinnon scored the overtime game-winner in the dramatic Game 5 contest. Despite two subpar games in Minnesota, MacKinnon has utilized his first NHL postseason as a coming-out party, showcasing himself as one of the league's future signature stars:

As ESPN.com's Corey Pronman illustrates (subscription required), MacKinnon's success at such a young age places him in the same neighborhood as the likes of Eric Lindros and Ilya Kovalchuk, and just behind the production of Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby:

Not only is MacKinnon likely to outperform that pool of comparables because he is a late birth date -- and only 18 -- but also by his scouting report (generational skater, elite skill level, work ethic and shot) he has been identified as a true top talent, and his performance early on has been among the best of the No. 1 overall picks.

While the future is undeniably bright for MacKinnon, he already stands as the focal point of Colorado's offense this series. It's clear that apart from Ryan Suter, Minnesota's defensemen have had trouble containing the speedy Avalanche forwards.

MacKinnon has already established himself as a name to watch in the future. By bringing his home performance on the road, he could accelerate his timeline and help carry a young Colorado team further than anyone could have expected.

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