The Top Unsung Heroes in the 2nd Round of the 2014 NHL Playoffs
In the ever-changing world of the NHL playoffs, yesterday's hero can be tomorrow's goat.
The players who etch their names in history are the ones who continuously elevate their game—from regular season to playoffs, then round by round after that. If it happens in more than one year, even better.
Here's a look at one player from each team who has been quietly impressive in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs so far. There are some stars in the mix, but the emphasis is on players who have gotten better as they've gone along—and who haven't receieved much credit for their contributions...yet.
A few teams have several players who could be worthy of inclusion. If you've seen an unsung hero who you think is about to get everybody talking, be sure to share it with us in the comments.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games of Wednesday, May 7.
Henrik Lundqvist: New York Rangers
- 78 playoff games over eight seasons with New York
- 35-43 record with 2.28 goals-against average
- Best Performance to Date: Lost Eastern Conference Final in six games to New Jersey Devils in 2012.
What He's Done in Round 2: As his tired teammates have slumped around him, Lundqvist has done everything possible to keep the New York Rangers alive in their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This is nothing new for the perennial Vezina Trophy candidate. In this series, his solid performance is being overshadowed by the listless play of the team in front of him.
Can He Keep it Up? Lundqvist will always go down fighting. New York may not have enough gas in the tank to stage a comeback against Pittsburgh, but no one should blame him if the Rangers fail to advance.
Brandon Sutter: Pittsburgh Penguins
- 25 playoff games over two seasons with Pittsburgh
- Six goals, three assists, nine points, plus-nine
- Best Performance to Date: Lost Eastern Conference Final in five games to Boston Bruins in 2013.
What He's Done in Round 2: With the entire Penguins team doing an impressive job of supporting its stars, it's not easy to single out one unsung hero. At 25, Brandon Sutter has stepped up his game after a tough regular season and so-so performance in the 2013 playoffs.
Suddenly, Sutter is a prototypical two-way forward. He's leading the Penguins in the playoffs with a plus-10 and is plus-four against the Rangers. On Wednesday, he scored a savvy goal to squash all hopes of a Rangers comeback, following up on Brian Gibbons' drive to the net and then flipping the puck over a startled Henrik Lundqvist.
Honorable mention to Paul Martin and trade-deadline acquisitions Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc, who are all making big contributions for the Penguins.
Can He Keep it Up? Sutter has been a disappointment in Pittsburgh since he was acquired for Jordan Staal in 2012. In these playoffs, he's showing that he's ready to step into that third-line center role. Sutter is playing the best hockey of his NHL career and looking like a future Selke Trophy candidate.
Brad Marchand: Boston Bruins
- 62 playoff games over four seasons with Boston
- 16 goals, 23 assists, 39 points, plus-20
- Best Performance to Date: Won Stanley Cup in 2011.
What He's Done in Round 2: Though his Boston Bruins currently trail the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in their best-of-seven series, Marchand looks like he's just getting warmed up. All five of his assists these playoffs have come against Montreal. He's also an impressive plus-six in a series where every game has been close.
Can He Keep it Up? Marchand is built for the intensity of the playoffs when emotions run high. The Canadiens have done a good job of pushing back against the Bruins' aggression so far, but he might need to turn his pest meter up another notch in the back half of this series if Boston is to advance.
Michael Bournival: Montreal Canadiens
- Six games in rookie season with Montreal
- One assist, even plus-minus
- Best Performance to Date: Happening right now.
What He's Done in Round 2: After playing limited minutes on the fourth line when the Montreal Canadiens swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1, Bournival was scratched for Game 1 against Boston. He drew back into the lineup in Game 2 after an injury to Brandon Prust, then moved up to the second line in Game 3, where he started the play that set up Tomas Plekanec's opening goal.
Honorable mention to grinder Dale Weise, whose two game-winning goals so far in the playoffs have already moved him past the category of "unsung" in Montreal.
Can He Keep it Up? Bournival played a playoff-high 14:13 on Tuesday, and CBC's Tim Wharnsby thinks the speedy 21-year-old will be able to build off that.
"If there was a young player on the Canadiens roster ready to deal with the playoff pressure cooker in Montreal, it was Bournival," Wharnsby wrote.
Bryan Bickell: Chicago Blackhawks
- 47 games over five seasons with Chicago
- 18 goals, 14 assists, 32 points, plus-21
- Best Performance to Date: 17 points in Blackhawks' 2013 Stanley Cup win. Also played four games in 2010 win.
What He's Done in Round 2: After his fine performance in the 2013 playoffs, Bickell disappointed with just 15 regular-season points after being rewarded with a new four-year contract with a cap hit of $4 million per season.
He's showing that while he might draw his salary during the regular season, he makes his money in the playoffs. Bickell had three goals and two assists through the Blackhawks' first two games of their second-round series against the Minnesota Wild.
Can He Keep it Up? Quite possibly. Bickell was a steady offensive force for Chicago in its 2013 run, chipping in unexpected goals during the occasional lulls in production from Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
The 'Hawks are a well-oiled machine by now, and players who have won multiple Stanley Cups are rarely unsung, but after his spotty season, Bickell has picked up his game once again.
Ilya Bryzgalov: Minnesota Wild
- 44 games over six seasons with Ducks, Coyotes, Flyers and Wild
- 19-23 with 2.84 goals-against average
- Best Performance to Date: Played in 11 games with a 1.46 goals-against average when the Anaheim Ducks fell to the Edmonton Oilers in the 2006 Western Conference Final
What He's Done in Round 2: After getting pulled following a shaky start to the playoffs, Bryzgalov was called back into action for the Minnesota Wild when Darcy Kuemper was injured in Game 7 of the Wild's first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche.
With his team down a goal and less than eight minutes left in regulation time, Minnesota locked it down. Bryz was required to make just one save as Jared Spurgeon tied the game, then Nino Niederreiter won the series for Minnesota at 5:02 of overtime.
Bryzgalov has owned the Minnesota net in Round 2, pulling his team back into its series against the Chicago Blackhawks with a shutout performance in Game 3.
Can He Keep it Up? Who knows? Bryzgalov is rarely average—he tends to be either very good or very bad. He has certainly done enough to prove his worth as a late-season insurance acquisition by the Wild.
After being bought out of his big contract with Philadelphia in the summer of 2013, who would have expected that Bryzgalov would be at the center of a playoff storyline this May?
Devante Smith-Pelly: Anaheim Ducks
- Seven games with Anaheim in his third pro season
- Two goals, zero assists, two points, plus-one
- Best Performance to Date: Happening right now.
What He's Done in Round 2: Smith-Pelly's two playoff goals this season came in his Anaheim Ducks' pivotal Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, but as Curtis Zupke of NHL.com explains, he's continuing to raise his game in Round 2.
Smith-Pelly, 21, was forgotten after he was reassigned to the American Hockey League in November. He was recalled in April and reminded the Ducks of his wrecking-ball capabilities. At 6-feet, 222 pounds, Smith-Pelly is built like a fire hydrant and can occasionally put the puck in the net.
Can He Keep it Up? It hasn't been an easy acclimation to the NHL for Smith-Pelly, who first broke into the league at age 19 with 49 regular-season games in 2011-12.
Coach Bruce Boudreau appears to like what he's seeing as the playoffs progress: Smith-Pelly played a playoff-high 15:54 in the Ducks' 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 2.
Alec Martinez: Los Angeles Kings
- 42 games over four seasons with Los Angeles
- Three goals, eight assists, 11 points, plus-one
- Best Performance to Date: Won Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2012.
What He's Done in Round 2: Alec Martinez has three goals in his four-year playoff career. The first was a game-winner in Game 3 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final against the New Jersey Devils. The other two came in the past week.
With Kings veteran defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr on the injured list, the team's other four regulars all need to elevate their games. Martinez has been solid defensively in two games against Anaheim and has also delivered two of the Kings' six goals so far in the series—including another game-winner in Game 2.
Can He Keep it Up? Coach Darryl Sutter sure hopes so. The Kings' defensive depth will be tested with Mitchell and Regehr out of the lineup, so more will be expected from players like Martinez, who's doing his bit so far.
The 26-year-old is one year away from unrestricted free agency. A great playoff could mean a big payday next summer.
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