The Stanley Cup playoffs are the perfect time for a player to cement his spot in NHL history by making an undeniable impact. The 2014 edition of the postseason has taken several unheralded players and turned them into bona fide stars.
There are few experts and fans who would have bet that Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Minnesota’s Darcy Kuemper and Columbus’ Ryan Johansen would have been breakout stars this postseason. But with the first round finishing up on Wednesday at the latest, that’s exactly what has happened.
Here are the players who have exploded onto the NHL postseason scene to steal many of the highlights from the more experienced veterans.
Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
To say Nathan MacKinnon was an unheralded prospect would be untrue. He was selected by the Colorado Avalanche No. 1 overall in the 2013 NHL draft. But few fans expected him to make such an instant impact.
Not only did MacKinnon step up in the regular season (63 points in all 82 games), but he has also starred in the postseason, leading the NHL with 10 points (two goals and eight assists) in five games.
After scoring the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 5, MacKinnon told Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com that, “It was so exciting. The best part was sharing with the guys in the huddle after the goal, my helmet got ripped off in the celebration. It's pretty exciting. It definitely ranks at the top of my list."
Colorado has pushed Minnesota to the brink of elimination (the Wild trail in the series 3-2), and much of the success is due to the elite play of MacKinnon. The rookie still needs to finish the series strong and advance to the second round, but he has already shown the franchise that he is a player worth building around.
With the Avalanche building for the future, the composure and intensity shown by MacKinnon in his first playoff series should have the organization ecstatic about how much he can grow as a player and as a leader.
Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild
As well as MacKinnon has played for Colorado, the Minnesota Wild have climbed back into the series against the Avalanche due to the elite play of 23-year-old goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
Minnesota has faced turmoil with its netminders all season. A late-season addition of veteran Ilya Bryzgalov wasn't working. After Bryzgalov performed terribly in Game 1 and started Game 2 slow, the Wild pulled the trigger and put Kuemper in net.
Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the NHL’s official twitter account expressed stats to prove just how well Kuemper has played thus far:
#mnwild's darcy Kuemper 5th goaltender in the NHL's expansion era to win his first two career playoff starts while allowing one goal (Elias)— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) April 25, 2014
Since taking over, Kuemper has racked up 78 saves on 83 shots for an impressive save percentage of .940. While Minnesota trails in the series 3-2, it is not due to the lack of effort between the pipes from the second-year player.
With a chance to force Game 7, the Wild will lean on Kuemper once again.
Ryan Johansen, C, Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets have really turned heads with their play against the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite trailing 3-2 in the series, center Ryan Johansen has emerged as a star of the future for the team.
In his third season in the NHL, Johansen blossomed, racking up 33 goals and 30 assists in the regular season. The 21-year-old has carried that momentum into the postseason, adding six points (two goals and four assists) in five games.
The real key for Johansen has been his newfound ability and willingness to use his size advantage. At 6’3” and 215 pounds, he was apprehensive about banging along the boards early in his career, but that fear is gone.
With more aggression and intensity, Johansen has become a bona fide star.
*Stats via NHL.com.