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NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011: The 20 Most Important Players in the Postseason

Matthew FairburnCorrespondent IApril 22, 2011

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011: The 20 Most Important Players in the Postseason

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    It seems strange to think that the NHL is still a month and a half away from crowning a champion. That's a testament to the long grind of the NHL playoffs. Countless unpublicized injuries, weeks of facial hair growth, and a handful of memorable moments will lead the hockey world to a Stanley Cup champion.

    The long haul of the NHL playoffs is not for the faint of heart. Countless superstars have disappeared in this bright lights of the postseason, while journeymen have made their mark on the league's biggest stage.

    This is where we find out what these guy are made of. Hockey's ultimate prize is on the line, and everyone in the tournament is chasing that feeling.

    Here are 20 players who need to dig a little deeper to help their squad hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. 

20. Nathan Gerbe, Buffalo Sabres

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Buffalo Sabres have been on a tear since finding new ownership, and Nathan Gerbe has been a major part of that.

    The former Boston College Eagle is an offensive catalyst with his quickness and nonstop motor. His energy has been noticeable on every shift. Gerbe has put tons of pressure on the Flyers' defense, which has been without Chris Pronger.

    With the series knotted at two games a piece, Nathan Gerbe has a chance to be a difference maker for his team. Ignore his height because this kid has a chance to be a big-time player.

19. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    King Henrik is literally the only chance the New York Rangers have to take down the Washington Capitals. He has once again been superb all season long, but it appears he may finally be wearing down.

    Anytime a No. 8 seed takes down a No. 1 seed, the goaltender is going to have a lot to do with it. As we saw in the 2006 Winter Olympics, Henrik Lundqvist is no stranger to the spotlight. However, he is faced with a tougher task this time around.

    Lundqvist will undoubtedly continue his admirable performance, but it likely won't be enough for the Empire State.

18. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Can the Chicago Blackhawks win another Stanley Cup with a rookie goaltender at the helm?

    As the series goes on, Corey Crawford is getting increasingly confortable in goal for the defending Stanley Cup champions. As a matter of fact, he has outperformed Roberto Luongo at times during this clash.

    After losing a major chunk of their contributors from a season ago, Chicago is going to need a new star to emerge. Can Crawford be that guy?

17. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Pekka Rinne had an immaculate regular season. Whether it he was a product of the system or not is up for debate. Certainly he owes a great deal of his success to the players in front of him, but he is also quite a gifted player himself.

    Unfortunately, he has not proven to be as impressive in the postseason. The Nashville Predators have the pieces to make a deep playoff run, but they will need more consistent play in between the pipes.

    A team like Nashville, that relies on their defensive strength, cannot allow six goals to the Ducks and expect to come out on top.

16. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

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    The Detroit Red Wings rolled over the Phoenix Coyotes in convincing fashion, completing the four-game sweep on Wednesday night. 

    Obviously, Detroit's forward depth and strong defensive have carried the team, but Jimmy Howard is the wild card that could carry this team all the way to the Stanley Cup.

    Howard was rock solid in the opening series for the Wings and if he continues to pick up the slack for the Red Wings it will take some of the pressure off of their scorers. The Wings have enough talent to go the distance, but Jimmy Howard may have to steal a few games.

15. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Joe Thornton is a perennial disappointment in the postseason. Sure, he snapped out of it a bit last year, but he has a long ways to go before he can shake the label of "choker."

    The San Jose Sharks in general have been a lackluster postseason team. The 2011 version of the Sharks appear to have a different feel, but how far can they go? It's all up to Captain Jumbo Joe.

    At some point, Thornton has to realize that enough is enough, and he has to put the team on his back. 

14. Brian Boucher, Philadelphia Flyers

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    It didn't take long for Peter Laviolette and the Philadelphia Flyers to realize that Sergei Bobrovsky was not quite ready for prime time. The Russian rookie was yanked in Game 3 and Brian Boucher ran away with the starting gig.

    The goalie issues of the Philadelphia Flyers are no secret. As a matter of fact, the issue is nearly 40 years old. Luckily, the team in front of Boucher is as talented as any Philly team in recent memory. 

    Boucher is the steady veteran presence the Flyers need between the pipes. Recall the 2010 postseason, in which Boucher was on a similar hot streak before going down with injury. His injury led to the team's downfall.

    2011 gives new life to Boucher and the Flyers. If he can maintain his play, Boucher will be the most important player on the Flyers' roster.

13. Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

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    Is there a more erratic goaltender in the league than Tim Thomas? One second he is making a highlight-reel save and the next he is letting a soft goal slide through his five hole.

    Of course, that is to be expected from a goaltender who pays little attention to positioning and fundamentals and instead relies on straight reactions. His playing style is either going to carry the Bruins or bury them.

    The Boston Bruins have very little star power on their roster, especially offensively. Therefore, Tim Thomas is going to have to carry the load, and he has not been doing it so far.

    Time is running out on Thomas' career, and now is the time for him to build a legacy. 

12. Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins

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    Another Boston Bruin who has failed to take his game to the next level this postseason is Zdeno Chara. For a guy who wears the "C" on his chest, Zdeno Chara has been anything but a leader.

    Captains are supposed to elevate their game to the next level in big moments. That is what being a leader is all about. Unfortunately for the Bruins, Zdeno Chara has gone the other direction.

    If Chara and Thomas are not able to elevate their game to the next level, the Boston Bruins will be dead in the water without a doubt. 

11. Mike Richards, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Sensing a theme with this list? 

    Captains and goaltenders are the most vital aspects of a deep postseason run. The Philadelphia Flyers may have questions in net, but they have one of the best captains in the entire NHL.

    Mike Richards embodies the Flyers' philosophy with his hard-nosed, non-stop physical play. The Flyer captain is the quintessential captain. Tough, hardworking, and a terrific personality.

    Richards has Conn Smythe written all over him. 

10. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

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    Pavel Datsyuk is the most dynamic playmaker in the National Hockey League. Period.

    The Detroit Red Wings are anxiously awaiting the return of Henrik Zetterburg, but Pavel Datsyuk is the one carrying this team. The Russian center had six points in the sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes and is sure to pick up steam as the postseason moves along.

    The Detroit Red Wings are loaded with experienced veteran forwards and Datsyuk is the trigger man.

9. Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

    Chris Pronger has not played in a game yet this postseason. So it should come as no surprise that the Philadelphia Flyers are knotted at two games apiece with the seventh-seeded Buffalo Sabres

    Pronger's return is Philly's best shot at the title. His presence out front in the defensive zone has been greatly missed. With the shaky goaltending situation in Philadelphia, Chris Pronger's return to the lineup could help stabilize the situation.

    In addition, the Flyers' power play is in grave need of a quarterback. Matt Carle and Kimmo Timonen are serviceable point men, but they have not been getting the job done recently.

    Chris Pronger is one of the league's all time best blue-liners, so his return will naturally have an immense impact.   

8. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Steven Stamkos is just 21 years old and has already compiled two seasons of over 90 points. Now the Canadian superstar is in pursuit of his first Stanley Cup ring.

    Unfortunately, he faces the unenviable task of carrying his team on his shoulders. Stamkos may not be ready for that task just yet. His supporting cast leaves a bit to be desired, which just makes Stammer all the more important to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

7. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The NHL's best defenseman is getting a chance to prove his worth on the game's biggest stage. Nashville's Shea Weber has been instrumental in the team's prolific defense this season.

    Not only in Weber rocking an intense playoff beard, but he already has two goals this postseason in just four games. 

    In today's NHL, defensive-oriented teams rarely have tremendous postseason success. However, SHea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne intend to change that.

6. Michal Neuvirth, Washington Capitals

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Washington Capitals are a constant disappointment in the postseason. Many will blame the shortcomings on Alexander Ovechkin, others will blame their defensive liabilities. Anyway you slice it, the Washington Capitals are on a mission.

    The man that has been instrumental in their brief postseason success thus far is Michal Neuvirth. He has been incredibly composed and fundamentally sound in his young postseason career.

    Some may be concerned about his inexperience, but his lack of experience could be just what the Capitals need. His naiveté could be a blessing in disguise if the young netminder does not realize the significance of the games he is playing.  

5. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Crosby is another player on this list who has not stepped foot on the ice. However, his anticipated return is as vital to the Pittsburgh Penguins' success as anyone on their roster.

    Even if he is not at 100 percent, Sidney Crosby is better than most players. In addition, he has the big-game experience that Pittsburgh desperately needs at this point.

    Sid the Kid is still the world's best player and anything he can bring to the table is highly anticipated.

4. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

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    Carey Price is another player on this list that has struggled in big games in the past. 

    In the earlygoing of the 2011 NHL playoffs, Carey Price has taken his game to another level. He seems more composed than he has ever been, and appears poised to take a step into the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders.

    The question is will he hold up over the grind of the NHL postseason? Price has been known to fade over the long haul of the playoffs. 

    In 2010, the Montreal Canadiens rode the hot streak of Jaroslav Halak to the Eastern Conference finals. They hope Carey Price can carry them just a step further.

3. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    With the absence of Sindey Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury is now the go-to-guy for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Fleury's maturation over the last year has been significant. The former No. 1 overall pick has finally begun to play up to that level. Now the question is, can he play at a high enough level to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins have long been Sidney Crosby's team. Marc-Andre Fleury has a chance to put his stamp on the organization with continued strong play.

2. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    The most compelling storyline of the 2011 NHL playoffs is the potential coming of age of Alexander Ovechkin.

    Can the Russian superstar make the transition from a perennial All-Star to postseason legend? Time will tell of course, but early indications are that the Capitals aren't messing around in 2011.

    Ovechkin appears to be sick and tired of hearing about his lack of success in important games. No. 8 is on a mission, and he is not going to stop until his name is engraved on that Stanley Cup.

    However, the road will not be a smooth one. Ovechkin will have to roll through hard-nosed teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins.

    We're about to see what Alexander Ovechkin is made of. 

1. Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks

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    All season long the NHL world has considered Vancouver Canucks the favorites to bring home the Stanley Cup.

    Despite their failures in the past, the Canucks have the faith of the hockey world after winning the President's Trophy. However, not much has changed.

    Specifically, Roberto Luongo is still in net. Luongo has been shaky in recent postseason play and that trend is continuing in 2011.

    The Canadian goaltender is the wild card of the 2011 NHL playoffs. Luongo has the fate of the Vancouver Canucks on his shoulders every time he steps between the pipes. 

    Vancouver will only go as far as Roberto Luongo can take them.

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