NHL Players Who Must Step Up in 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2014

NHL Players Who Must Step Up in 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs

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    Over the course of four best-of-seven NHL playoff rounds, players are expected to elevate their performance. Every team which reached the divisional finals did so largely because most of their players stepped up their game.

    Each club, however, also had at least one notable player who had a disappointing opening round. One is a promising young goaltender taking part in the NHL playoffs for the first time. The rest were offensive leaders in the regular season who struggled to score through the divisional semifinals.

    All must cope with the heightened expectations and pressure which comes with playoff hockey. They must also deal with the extra attention from opponents seeking to exploit their weaknesses. Their performances could affect their respective teams' championship hopes this spring. 

    Here's a look at one notable struggling player from each division finalist who must step up their play in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks

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    A promising young goaltender,  Andersen took over the starting role from struggling Jonas Hiller for the Ducks' opening-round series against the Dallas Stars. The 24-year-old Dane began well with two straight victories, but struggled in his next two outings. In Game 4 he was replaced by Hiller midway through the third period of a 4-2 loss.

    Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau returned with Andersen in Game 5 and was rewarded with a 6-2 victory, but pulled him again in Game 6 when he gave up four goals on 12 shots. Hiller subsequently backstopped the Ducks to their 5-4 series-clinching overtime victory. Andersen finished the series with a 3.40 goals against average and a .892 save percentage. Hardly the numbers of a playoff starter. 

    The Orange County Register's Eric Stephens reports Boudreau must now decide between Andersen and Hiller as his starter in their second-round series against the Los Angeles Kings. “Andersen never did deliver the big save that marked his regular season and got him the net for the playoffs,” wrote Stephens. He speculates Hiller could get the call against the Kings.

    Strong goaltending is a must for a Stanley Cup championship. If Andersen opens the series as the Ducks' starter, he must seize the opportunity to overcome his earlier disappointments. Hiller has more playoff experience and could get the call if Andersen struggles again. 

David Krejci, Boston Bruins

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    Almost overshadowed by the Bruins dispatching the Detroit Red Wings in five games in their divisional semifinal was Krejci's puzzling lack of offense. The Bruins' leading scorer in the regular season, Krejci scarcely made a dent in the scoresheet against the Wings.

    Boston Globe blogger Eric Wilbur noted the lack of production from Krejci and linemate Jarome Iginla prior to Game 5 against the Wings. He placed “the bulk of the criticism” for the Bruins needing overtime to defeat Detroit in Game 4 on the Krejci line. There was some justification to Wilbur's critique, as the 28-year-old center managed only two assists through five games against the Wings. 

    Following Game 4, WEEI.com's DJ Bean reported Krejci wasn't concerned over his lack of production up to that point. “If we win and I have no points, it happens just like it happened today”, he said. “It doesn't matter. I'm just glad we won tonight. In a playoff, you need different guys to step up at different times."

    Known as a clutch playoff scorer, Krejci went scoreless through the Bruins' 4-3 series-opening loss against the Montreal Canadiens. Though his scoring struggles weren't an issue in the first round, the Bruins need more from Krejci against the determined Canadiens. 

Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Blackhawks rode the leadership and offense of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane to overcome a 2-0 opening-round deficit against the St. Louis Blues to win the series in six games. Notably absent from the scoreboard in that series was Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks' leading scorer during the regular season.

    Sharp was scoreless through five games against the Blues, finally potting his first goal in the Blackhawks' series-clinching victory in Game 6. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told NHL.com's Brian Hedger that goal proved “the backbreaker” for his club. Sharp later admitted to Hedger his frustration over his scoreless drought. “I've been through it before as a guy who's supposed to score goals,” he said. “On a nightly basis, I've been through stretches like that before.”

    It wasn't for lack of effort on Sharp's part. During the divisional semifinal the 32-year-old winger was second in shots (23) and hits (16). His physical play helped create space and scoring opportunities for his teammates.

    Sharp collected two assists as the Blackhawks opened their division final against the Minnesota Wild with a 5-2 victory. It's a promising sign that he may be emerging from his earlier offensive funk.

Mike Richards, Los Angeles Kings

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    Richards entered the playoffs having gone 22 games without an assist and nine games without a goal. His offensive slump was particularly noticeable when the San Jose Sharks opened a 3-0 series lead over the Kings in their divisional semifinal. 

    The Kings subsequently rallied back to eliminate the Sharks in seven games, becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to achieve that feat. LAKingsInsider.com's Jon Rosen reported Richards made NHL history, becoming the only player to participate in winning two playoffs series after falling behind 3-0, having previously done so with Philadelphia in 2010.

    Richards contributed more to the Flyers' rally in 2010 against Boston than in the Kings' victory over the Sharks. In 2010, he tallied three goals and nine points. Against the Sharks, he had only one assist and was tied with Matt Greene for a team-worst plus/minus (-3).

    Richards still plays an effective checking game, but his scoring touch appears to have deserted him. The Kings need more production from him in their second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks. 

Matt Moulson, Minnesota Wild

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    It's been an unusual season for Moulson. Earlier in the season he was dealt from the New York Islanders to the Buffalo Sabres. At the March trade deadline he was shipped to the Minnesota Wild. Despite the constant movement, the 30-year-old winger still managed 23 goals and 51 points, including six goals and 13 points in 20 games with the Wild.

    Moulson was expected to provide an offensive boost in the playoffs to a Wild team which finished 24th in goals per game during the regular season. During their seven-game series against the Avalanche, Moulson scored only once and set up another.

    His offensive struggles continued in the Wild's 5-2 series-opening loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Moulson was held scoreless with three shots and a plus/minus of minus-1. 

    The Wild need their top scorers at their best if they're to upset the favored Blackhawks. Moulson must find a way to adjust to the playoff intensity and elevate his game.

Thomas Vanek, Montreal Canadiens

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    The Canadiens acquired Vanek from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline expecting him to provide a boost to their offense in the playoffs. After playing well down the stretch (15 points in 18 games), the 30-year-old winger's production has dried up in the postseason.

    Vanek scored once and collected two assists during the Canadiens' sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was subsequently held scoreless in their 4-3 series-opening win against the Boston Bruins.

    Following the Lightning series, Vanek told NHL.com's James Murphy of the difficulty he and linemates Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais had with generating offense in that series, and what they'll face against the Bruins. "So we have to do a better job in this series (against the Bruins) to kind of just stick with it because we know our chances will be limited,” said Vanek.

    So far the Canadiens have managed to cope with Vanek's limited production. If he can improve his scoring pace, their chances of upsetting the powerful Bruins will certainly improve.

Rick Nash, New York Rangers

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    Nash missed 17 games earlier in the season due to a head injury and has struggled to regain his scoring form following his return. He finished the season with 26 goals and 39 points in 65 games.

    His offensive woes continued through the Rangers' first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers. Though he had four assists in seven games and led the Blueshirts in shots (30), Nash failed to score. He was also held scoreless in the Rangers' 3-2 series-opening win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Stretching back through last year's playoffs, the 29-year-old winger has only one goal in 20 playoff games as a Ranger.

    Prior to Game 7 against the Flyers, Nash spoke with the New York Post's Larry Brooks about his scoring drought. “I'm trying my best to help the team win,” he said. “They're not going in, so of course it's frustrating.”

    Earlier in that series, the New York Times' Jeff Z. Klein reported Nash's teammates and coach Alain Vigneault believe it's only a matter of time before Nash starts cashing in. If he does, the Rangers' chances of beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in their divisional final will surely improve. 

James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Throughout the Penguins' six-game struggle to eliminate the plucky Columbus Blue Jackets, much of the focus was on the scoring struggles of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Largely overlooked was the lack of production from James Neal.

    While Crosby (six assists) and Malkin (five points) did contribute against the Jackets, Neal scored only once and had no assists. A former 40-goal scorer, the 26-year-old winger was among the Penguins' leading scorers during the regular season despite missing 23 games to injuries and suspensions.

    Prior to the playoffs, Neal told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic he was looking forward to postseason competition. “It definitely hasn't been the easiest year. But I'm excited for the playoffs. It's a chance to turn things around. That's how it feels right now, like a second chance.”

    Neal did score in Game 1 of the Penguins' 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers. Perhaps it's an indication he's starting to snap out of his offensive funk.