2011 NHL Playoff Predictions: The 20 Most Important Players in the Postseason

Ben BarrCorrespondent IApril 14, 2011

2011 NHL Playoff Predictions: The 20 Most Important Players in the Postseason

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    The Stanley Cup playoffs get started tonight with a handful of first-round games; top seeds Vancouver and Washington open up their respective series to kick things off. Every team can make a case for a run to the Cup, and it all starts tonight.

    There will be a few heroes that emerge throughout the postseason. Some will be household names and others might be truly unexpected.

    But it is possible to get an idea of which players will have the greatest impact in these playoffs. Here's a look at the top-20 most important players this spring.

20. Ryan Getzlaf

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    Ryan Getzlaf and the Ducks are back in the playoffs for the first time since giving the Red Wings a run for their money in 2009 and losing in seven games. This year's team seems faster up front than the Ducks from 2009 or the Cup-winning team from 2007.

    While he only played in 67 games in the regular season, Getzlaf chalked up 57 assists in this year, good for fourth in the NHL. Getzlaf helped line-mate Corey Perry to a league-leading 50 goals, and those two combined with Bobby Ryan to write quite a story in Anaheim.

    Getzlaf is a proven playoff scorer, averaging 0.83 points per postseason game, and he already has a Cup ring. His skill, size and orchestration of one of the top lines in the game will give the Ducks a chance this spring.

19. Martin St. Louis

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    Marty St. Louis is coming into this year's playoffs with one of the best Lightning teams since the 2004 Cup-winning team. He is still able to create plays on Tampa's top line with Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie, as well as on the power play.

    He is more of a veteran leader on this team than he was during his Hart Trophy season in 2004, and has scored 1.07 points per game in his playoff career. The Lightning will be relying on him to create timely opportunities for big goals come playoff time.

18. Steven Stamkos

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    Marty St. Louis probably found the tape on Steven Stamkos' stick for most of his 68 assists this year. Stamkos turned in a great all-around performance this year after sharing the Rocket Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby last year.

    It was really good to see Stamkos end the season with more assists (46) than goals (45) while finishing fifth in the league with 91 points. 

    Stamkos is clearly going to have to be Tampa's top goal-scoring threat if the Bolts are to go far in the postseason. They are matched up against the Penguins in what is sure to be a tough first-round series.

    His contribution could give the Bolts the edge against a Pens team without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

17. Ilya Bryzgalov

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    Ilya Bryzgalov has been among the league's busiest goaltenders this year, appearing in 68 of 82 regular-season games for Phoenix. He has faced the fourth-most shots of any net-minder, and has posted top-five numbers in shutouts and goals allowed while notching 36 wins.

    The Coyotes are meeting the Red Wings in the first round for the second straight year; they took Detroit to Game 7 last year before the Wings knocked them out at home. The 'Yotes are going to need "Bryz" to step up like he has all season to get past the Red Wings this year.

    He definitely will need to improve this time around; the Wings scored 3.44 goals a game in last year's series.

16. Ryan Kesler

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    Ryan Kesler had a career-high 41 goals this year and finished plus-24 on a loaded Canucks team. He is an excellent two-way forward that can finish near the top of the league in goal scoring while excelling at both ends of the ice.

    His impact in this postseason can put the Canucks over the top and arguably makes them the Cup favorites. He helped them capture the Presidents' Trophy this year and is one of many good Canucks that is mentioned after the Sedin twins.

    It's really tough to name another group of three teammates that are as talented as Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler.

15. Nicklas Lidstrom

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    Nicklas Lidstrom is leading another great Red Wings team into the playoffs in 2011. While they were able to recapture the Central Division title, they have not been the healthiest bunch throughout, and they missed Henrik Zetterberg for Game 1 against Phoenix.

    Lidstrom has had another great year on the back end for the Red Wings and will be in the Norris Trophy conversation, as always.

    He is going to be as important as ever this year, considering how banged up the Wings are coming into the postseason. Without Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall played in Game 1, but was a game-time decision for coach Mike Babcock.

    As the Red Wings try to make it through the tough Western Conference, Lidstrom will have to steer talented forwards away from young goalie Jimmy Howard. That will be imperative to Howard's performance and help determine how far the Wings go.

14. Joe Thornton

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    Joe Thornton had a below-average year by his standards, but he still led an impressive San Jose team to a Pacific Division crown. He and Patrick Marleau led the way for the Sharks with 70 and 73 points, respectively.

    What makes Thornton so important to the Sharks is his great playmaking skill, along with his great size. That being said, he is going to need to step up his play in the postseason; he is averaging 0.66 points per postseason game with the Sharks.

    He has also been a minus-12 player with San Jose, and improved scoring figures could help the Sharks to consistently go far in the playoffs.

13. Jimmy Howard

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    Jimmy Howard had to come back from a few injuries this year, and he proved to be a more-than-capable goalie for the Red Wings, who have very little help behind him. He finished third in the league with 37 wins in 63 games, but had a 2.79 goals against average (GAA).

    Ilya Bryzgalov could help the Coyotes compete with the Red Wings in the first round, but Detroit has higher expectations for its team. The Wings are a perennial contender that hasn't had to deal with too many problems in net, and as long as Howard delivers, they will be one of the favorites in the West.

12. Corey Crawford

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    Corey Crawford did a fine job replacing Antti Niemi this year for the Chicago Blackhawks. While the 'Hawks squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season, Crawford finished with a 2.30 GAA, good for eighth in the NHL.

    The Blackhawks are going up against the Canucks for the third straight year in the playoffs and are underdogs for the first time. While Crawford's stats don't jump off the page, he is going to need to have a great performance in the playoffs, a la Jaroslav Halak, if the Blackhawks are going to find a way to upset Vancouver.

    If they do, this would become a one-sided rivalry.

11. Sergei Bobrovsky

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    Sergei Bobrovsky had a great start to his rookie year and has fallen off a little since, finishing with a 2.59 GAA and 28 wins. He is being given the starting job to begin the playoffs, but we'll have to see if Peter Laviolette consistently puts him in net.

    It is generally believed that a team needs one goalie to make a playoff run, but Philadelphia did it with two last year, and with Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton back in the fold, the Flyers may look at a number of options.

    The fact of the matter is that Bobrovsky started out this year not only as one of the best rookies in the league, but as one of the best goalies in the NHL. The Philly faithful should be able to see which Bobrovsky they'll get relatively early.

    For a team that has been a front-runner all year, the Flyers' goaltending situation is pretty uncommon.

10. Ryan Miller

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    The Sabres are a fast, attacking team that is coming into these playoffs 8-1-1 in its last 10 games and can always be tough with Ryan Miller in net. He turned in another solid campaign for Buffalo and is one of the premier goaltenders in the game.

    If he is able to put together a playoff run akin to his Olympic performance last year, the Sabres will have a shot.

    Buffalo opens the 2011 playoffs against the Flyers, whom they beat in overtime in the final week of the season. They also beat the Flyers in their last playoff meeting in 2006, but Daniel Briere is on the other side this time.

    If Miller is able to repeat his Olympic performance (1.35 GAA), the Sabres will be a tough out.

9. Marc-Andre Fleury

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    Marc-Andre Fleury had a stellar regular season with a 2.32 GAA, keeping the Pens very competitive despite the absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the year. That mark was actually Fleury's career best, better than his 2.33 in 2008, when the Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

    The Penguins could be getting Crosby back in the later rounds, but Fleury is going to have to get them there first. If he is able to do that, the East playoff picture is only going to be more wide open.

8. Jonathan Toews

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    Jonathan Toews led a dominant Chicago playoff run through the West and to a Stanley Cup last year, but finds himself leading a much different 'Hawks team into a much different playoff situation.

    The defending champs are coming into their series against the Canucks as eighth-seeded underdogs that needed a Dallas loss to get a spot in the postseason. Toews, however, had his best individual season as a pro this year, with 32 goals, 44 assists and 76 points—all career highs.

    Not only are the 'Hawks going to need a remarkable performance by Corey Crawford, but they'll need Toews' Conn Smythe Trophy form as well to get by Vancouver.

    If Crawford doesn't get completely lit up and Toews averages over a point a game in the first round, the Blackhawks could at least make it interesting. But this series is going to be the toughest of the last three these teams have had for the Blackhawks to win.

7. Henrik Sedin

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    Henrik Sedin set up his twin brother Daniel for a more productive year after Henrik beat him out in points last year and won the Hart Trophy. Henrik finished 2010-2011 with 94 points and led the league in assists again with 75. He was a huge reason for the Canucks' Presidents' Trophy win.

    Sedin has been a point-per-game performer in the last two postseasons, wherein the Canucks were ousted by the Blackhawks. As long as he and the rest of the Canucks keeps performing the way they have, Vancouver is going to be the favorite to win the Cup.

6. Henrik Lundqvist

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    There is no goalie that is as important to his team as Henrik Lundqvist is to the Rangers. The fact that he even has a backup is kind of a joke; he played 68 games this year and over 70 in the four seasons prior.

    Lundqvist led the league in shutouts with 11, including two decisive wins over New York's first-round opponent, the Washington Capitals (7-0 and 6-0).

    Lundqvist is going to need to continue to be who he has been for the Rangers all year long: their best player. This year, he was in the top 11 spots in every major goaltending category.

    If he gets close to replicating Jaroslav Halak's performance against the Caps last year, the Rangers are going to have a chance in this series. Lundqvist's ability to slow down the great Capitals offense and power play is going to make or break the Rangers' chances in the opening round.

5. Carey Price

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    Carey Price turned in his best season in 2010-2011, showing up in the top 10 in many goaltending categories, including GAA (2.35), and he was tied with Roberto Luongo for first in the NHL with 38 wins.

    Price answered to a tough Montreal fanbase with a stellar season, but he has yet to have an excellent performance in the playoffs.

    Price has been regarded by some as the next Patrick Roy for the Canadiens, but his postseason numbers are not great. He has a 5-11 career record in the playoffs, falling short of individual expectations and failing to deliver on fans' hopes for his team as a whole.

    His mettle will be tested right away this postseason with a matchup against the arch-rival Bruins.

    Carey Price may be dealing with more pressure than anyone else to succeed this spring.

4. Daniel Sedin

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    Like his brother last year, Daniel Sedin is going to be one of the front-runners for the Hart Trophy this year,  after leading the league with 104 points and registering a plus-30 rating as a forward. The combination of the Sedins is always lethal; Daniel is the one that scores the goals with Henrik giving him great feeds.

    Heading into the playoffs, Daniel has already scored 10 game-winning goals this year. He has been just as productive as Henrik in the postseason, drawing more comparisons to his great twin.

    The Canucks are lucky to have all of these comparisons made about two of their players and not someone else's.

3. Alex Ovechkin

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    Alex Ovechkin came into 2010-2011 looking to dominate offensively like he has throughout his career, but the Capitals' new defensive style that Bruce Boudreau implemented this season forced Ovechkin's numbers down.

    However, the Capitals are looking as solid as they have ever been, showing that they can win low-scoring games now too.

    While Ovechkin has been criticized for his team's inability to make it past the second round of the playoffs, he has been a monster in the postseason. He is averaging 1.43 points per game in the playoffs, 0.12 points more than his rival, Sidney Crosby.

    Ovechkin hasn't gotten within four wins of a Cup Final yet, but his Capitals are getting closer every spring, and this might be their year.

2. Tim Thomas

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    Tim Thomas is the first choice for the Vezina Trophy this year (2.00 GAA, .938 save percentage, nine shutouts). He has bounced back wonderfully after losing the starting job to Tuukka Rask last year.

    Thomas was so good, he had soccer-goalie numbers to start out in the 2010-2011 season.

    While the Bruins lost in the second round as the No. 1 seed in his Vezina season two years ago, Thomas had a sparkling performance with a 1.85 GAA. He is going to give Boston a chance to go all the way this year.

    If Thomas is great this spring, the Bruins will be too.

1. Roberto Luongo

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    Roberto Luongo had a great year, landing in the top five in the three major goaltending categories—wins (38), GAA (2.11) and save percentage (.928). He and Cory Schneider won the Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the team with the fewest goals allowed (and the Canucks managed to score the most goals too).

    Luongo's best performance in big games, like Ryan Miller's, was in last year's Olympics in, where else? Vancouver.

    What Luongo still has to prove in the NHL is that he can help a team go deep in the playoffs. This was most evident last year, when the Canucks were knocked out by the Blackhawks in the second round.

    Including the first-round win over the Kings, Luongo compiled a 3.22 GAA. That is not even close to getting it done for a full championship run.

    For Luongo and the rest of the Canucks, the great regular season is in the rear-view mirror. He is going to have to carry over his best play for the best team to win the Stanley Cup.

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