2011 NHL Playoffs: Each Team's Playoff Performer That Must Step Up
With the final days of the NHL regular season slowly ticking off the calendar and anticipation looming in the air of which teams will be the next Cinderella-run Flyers of last year and who will be this years Powerhouse disappointment such as the Sharks of late, I will take you through each team and cover the single player that could power their team to playoff stardom or drag them into NHL history on the wrong end.
With the current standings, the playoff teams are nearly decided and here's the player that each team will be looking to raise their level of play.
Vancouver Canucks: Roberto Luongo
Vancouver is this year's Juggernaut. I mean just look at the statistics of this team. They are almost ten points ahead of the second place Capitals, looking to be the first team to lead in goals scored and goals against since 1977, and sporting the best 1-2 punch in hockey with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, in first and fourth place respectively, in points.
There is no doubt this team has all the components for a potential Stanley Cup. They do say, however, that history repeats itself, and let's be honest, history is not exactly on Roberto Luongo's side.
Vancouver, in recent history, has always put a solid team on the ice game in the regular season, but Luongo has never led them past the second round of the playoffs. When it comes to the big games, Luongo has never played to his potential and it has posed a problem for the Canucks.
This year, Luongo has put up phenomenal numbers and more importantly, has had time to rest as Canucks rookie backup, Cory Schneider has filled in admirably. If Luongo can keep up this year's numbers and use his rest to his advantage, I would watch for Vancouver to be a heavy favorite for their first Stanley Cup since the Millionaires won the championship back in 1915.
San Jose Sharks: Antti Niemi
Can he do it again?
Niemi played way out of his league with the Hawks and took them all the way to the Stanley Cup. Then they let him go.
With the San Jose Sharks in the goalie debacle of Nabakov, somehow picked up Niemi and he hasn't looked back since.
The Sharks have the firepower and have shown it before, but with Nabakov helping them become last decade's playoff disappointment, can Niemi bring what he did to the Blackhawks to San Jose?
If he can, watch out Vancouver.
Detroit Red Wings: Johan Franzen
Johan Franzen has been the definition of playoff performer for the Red Wings. After record-breaking playoff performances the past two years against both Colorado and San Jose, he has been nearly invisible during the regular season this year.
If Franzen can put up the numbers he has in the past, he can single-handedly swing the Red Wings deep into the playoffs. But if he continues his streak of mediocrity, he places a lot of weight on the shoulders of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
If Franzen can bring it like he has in the past, watch once again for the Wings to run deep into Lord Stanley's playoffs.
Nashville Predators: Pekka Rinne
I hate to make the goalies the centerpiece of this article, but in the West, so much is banking on them.
The Predators have successfully put a solid team on the ice for the past couple of years and without even having a so-called "Superstar".
They play such a cohesive game that teams have trouble finding a weak spot. I mean come on, their leading scorer is a defenseman. If that doesn't go to show how big a part defense plays for this team, I don't know what does.
Rinne has been absolutely fantastic for Nashville this year, second in GAA as well as save percentage and fifth in shutouts. If he can keep the puck out of the net at this rate, the Predators may only need 16 goals to take home Lord Stanley's Cup.
Watch for Rinne to keep up his phenomenal play to give Nashville at least a shot at the second round. Fans would love watching more of that seeing as how much they love that horrifying Tim Mcgraw song...
Pheonix Coyotes: Keith Yandle
Here's another team with a defenseman as their leading scorer.
Keith Yandle has surprised the entire NHL and has even gotten his name into talks of the Norris Trophy. However, the guy has only seen one other NHL playoff season and it didn't last long.
If he can keep putting pucks in the other end, all of Arizona knows that Bryzgalov is quite capable of stealing a game or two for the 'Yotes, watch for Pheonix to go for that first round upset, but I just don't see them pushing much further than that.
Los Angeles Kings: Dustin Penner
This guy has the skill set, he has the size, but where is his drive?
He was shipped out of Edmonton because he just didn't have the heart they needed, and L.A. hoped a change of scenery would jump start this guy's effort. So far, not so good.
With Anze Kopitar out, as well as Justin Williams (L.A.'s leading scorers), its time for Penner to prove he has the consistency to go with his skill. He has the ability to be a team leader and to be a top scorer just as he was in Edmonton. I
f there was anytime he is needed to be, it is now. He needs to keep the Kings afloat at least long enough until they can get Williams back because Dustin Brown can't do all the heavy lifting himself.
Anaheim Ducks: Corey Perry
Seriously, this guy is out of control.
A 15-goal month in March has jumped Perry to the top of the goal scoring column in the NHL with 47 goals on the season. He has single-handedly paraded Anaheim back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
Along with the great play of surprise goaltender Ray Emery, the Ducks are looking to continue playing hockey well into April.
If Perry can keep up this MVP-like play, Anaheim could be a playoff dark horse once their all-star goalie, Jonas Hiller, returns to the lineup.
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
After the dismanteling of Chicago two things became apparent: they did not care how well Niemi played for them during the playoffs and they thought they could do better for cheaper.
And while they may not have done that, they sure did come close.
Crawford has been the crutch to the Blackhawks recently and has held them in that eighth spot by leading all rookie goalies in every category except save percentage (in which he falls all the way to second).
The core of the Blackhawks were held together in Kane, Toews, Sharp and Keith and they have played well as of late.
If Sharp can make it back and Crawford can hold the Blackhawks in that last spot, we will have to see if he can be the Niemi of last season.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin
The Great Eight needs to give that nickname some substance. Hockey players achieve greatness in playoff and clutch performances.
Ovie has proven he can win games on his own in the regular season with a league-leading 11-game winning goals, but when it comes to the playoffs, he just hasn't been as great.
This season he has had a lot of rest and a lot of speculation has gone into his lowest scoring season yet.
Has he been resting for the ultimate prize race? Or has he just been off and is looking for a scapegoat?
We will find out soon, but one thing is for sure, if the Caps look to be this year's cup winner, Ovie is going to have to be greater than an eight—he must be a 10.
Philadelphia Flyers: Danny Briere
It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.
Briere has proven he is a playoff performer and after last year's disappointing loss following that miraculous Cinderella run, the fight will be bigger than ever in this little guy.
Coming into the prime of his career you know the Stanley Cup is the only thing on his mind. When it comes to the playoffs, he shows it.
Last year, in my opinion, Briere was their playoff MVP and he must do it again this year.
His regular season totals aren't as fantastic. He comes in fourth in scoring for the Flyers.
But come playoff time, if he can ramp up his game like he did last year, watch for the Flyers to enter their second consecutive cup final, but this time not as underdogs.
Boston Bruins: Tim Thomas
As if this comes to a shock to anyone who has even heard of the Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas has been this team, and in my mind is without a doubt the top Vezina contender.
After a disappointing season last year that watched him give up the reins to Tukka Rask, Thomas has come back with a vengeance.
He leads all goalies in GAA and save percentage. Not by a little, but by a ton.
He is one full percentage point higher than Pekka Rinne for save percentage and is almost under twp goals a game GAA. Absolutely astonishing numbers.
If he can take his Hasek-hybrid style of play to an even higher level once the playoffs roll around, watch for Boston to make a serious run.
But if he folds again, the Bruins may not even make it past their rivals (who lead the season series), the Montreal Canadiens.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury
There were a couple different ways I could have gone with this one.
The Penguins have been quite the surprise this year in the NHL. Playing strong and still fighting for the top spot in the East even without Crosby and Malkin has really shown that the Pens are a cohesive team and not just two super-stars racking up the points.
I could have gone with Crosby. If he can return they may make it further (he does still lead the team in points by over 15 even though he's played in exactly half as many as the rest of the team).
Or could have focused on someone stepping up to replace Malkin, their second superstar and one time NHL points leader.
But I think we've already seen who can step up. Marc-Andre Fleury has been an absolute phenom all season for the Pens. He has been a workhorse and put up very respectable numbers.
Fleury has spent his last three playoff seasons proving he is a playoff performer and if he can do that yet again, by the time Crosby is back, it will just add to their already dangerous chemistry.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
Where did this guy go?
Stamkos started off this season plastered all over NHL.com's homepage about being the first guy since Brett Hull in 1992 to score 50 goals in 50 games. Not that he's done bad by any means, but this year won't even see Stammer notch 50 in 82.
Tampa Bay had a Stanley Cup champion pace to start the season, but have been barely mediocre rounding up the last quarter.
If Stamkos can heat back up to the pace he started at, I would peg Tampa Bay as the Eastern Conference's dark horse. But if he keeps up this pedestrian play he has showed lately, I'd count Pittsburgh as Tampa's last stop this year.
Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price
Again, apologizies for all of the goalies, but how can you forget about the Halak/Price debacle from the off-season.
Montreal fans were livid when Halak was shipped out of Canada. Heck, I was expecting all the stop signs in Montreal to be changed to "Halak". Thats how phenomenal he played in the playoffs.
But the Habs took a gamble with the shaky Price, who lost his starting position after some weak play.
And boy did that gamble pay off.
Price has been nothing short of spectacular for the Habs. With the rookie performace of P.K. Subban, I'd watch for the Habs to be a mighty obstacle in the first round. That is, if Price can keep up his play as of late.
Buffalo Sabres: Drew Stafford
Boy when this guy heats up you better hope the hat you brought isn't one you plan on keeping.
Stafford has been hot and cold for the Sabres this year but when he is hot, man is he hot. He leads the league with four hat tricks and can bring the rain at any moment.
If he can heat up at the right moment and Ryan Miller can shake the funk he's been in all season, maybe, just maybe, Buffalo can hope to survive round one.
New York Rangers: Marian Gaborik
Gaborik has yet to have a playoff tenure with the New York Rangers. In fact, the last time he's even tasted playoff hockey was in 2008 when the Minnesota Wild lost in round one and Gaborik couldn't even put a puck in the net in six games.
He has been hot lately and we've seen what Marian can do when he gets hot.
With Ryan Callahan out, Gaborik must step up and reestablish the game he had early in the millennium with the Wild.
If he can bring it like he used to, the Rangers may not be swept in the first round.
But without the likes of Callahan, I wouldn't expect any Cinderella talk this year.