2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 10 Unlikely Heroes of the NHL Playoffs So Far

Adam Graham@@adam_grahamAnalyst IIMay 7, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 10 Unlikely Heroes of the NHL Playoffs So Far

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    They don't get paid the big bucks and they aren't the household names that the fans pay to see.

    But then again, in the Stanley Cup playoffs the players don't get paid at all and the fans are paying strictly to see their team win.

    The superstar players are suppose to be the ones who step up and lead the way. They're suppose be at the top of the scoring sheet and among the three stars at the end of the big games. But that's not always the case. Every year, there are the players who step up seemingly out of nowhere and deliver big goals and take their games to a level that no one expected.

    This year is no exception.

    Take a look at the scoring leaders in the 2011 Stanley Cup and you'll notice several players who were nothing more than third-line grinders during the regular season. But the playoffs take on a different set of circumstances, and in a long series, sometimes the star players need a little extra help to get the job done.

    Here is a look at the top 10 most unlikely heroes of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs to date.

10. Valtteri Filppula: Detroit Red Wings

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    For the Detroit Red Wings, the players who have led the way this postseason have been the usual suspects so far.

    But in amongst the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk on the list of team scoring leaders is a slightly lesser known forward by the name of Valtteri Filppula.

    Filppula has always been a talented player with a lot of potential. But so far in his NHL career, he hasn't quite lived up to that potential when it comes to producing points. His career high in that category is only 40, and he's never even had a 20-goal season either.

    But he was huge for the Red Wings in their first-round sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes, racking up five points in just four games. He also tallied the game-winning goal in Game 3 of that series, which put a series victory out of reach for the Coyotes.

    Perhaps, we shouldn't be too surprised with Filppula's increased production in the 2011 playoffs though. After all, his points per game average in the playoffs has been better than in the regular season in each of the last four years. He'll need to keep up his playoff scoring burst if the Red Wings want to pull off an improbable comeback against the San Jose Sharks.

9. Chris Higgins: Vancouver Canucks

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    Chris Higgins might only have three points so far in the 2011 NHL Playoffs, but that doesn't tell the whole story as all three of those points have been extremely important goals for the Vancouver Canucks.

    He got things started for the Canucks by scoring the opening goal in the first game of the playoffs against their nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. That goal turned out to be the game winner and it hasn't been the only game winner for Higgins in these playoffs. He also scored the only goal in game one of the Canucks next series against the Nashville Predators and has since scored a huge goal in game three of that series.

    In addition to his goal scoring, Higgins has stepped his game up immensely in the hit department as well. He has 28 hits so far this postseason and has been the team leader in that category in a number of the Canucks games this postseason.

    The fact that Higgins has been given so much offensive responsibility on the leagues highest scoring team is truly remarkable, given what he has gone through in the last couple of years.

    The Canucks are the fourth team that Higgins has played on in the last two seasons, and for a while, it appeared that his days as a goal scorer were over. Last year, he put up just eight goals and 17 points on two teams, and this year, he had only 11 goals on a dismal Florida Panthers squad before being dealt to the Canucks at the trade deadline.

    But the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs appear to have breathed new life into the Smithtown, New York native, and his efforts haven't gone unnoticed by the Canucks coaching staff. He's currently playing on the Canucks second line with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond, and he's making the most of the opportunity.

8. Chris Kelly: Boston Bruins

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    The Boston Bruins have taken pride in having a fairly balanced scoring attack this season. However, it still should come as a bit of a surprise that Chris Kelly, who put up just 28 points in the regular season, already has four goals and seven points in the playoffs.

    The third-line forward was huge for the Bruins in their first-round battle against the Montreal Canadiens. In fact, he was actually the teams' second-leading scorer in that series and scored a huge third period goal in Game 7.

    Kelly is also contributing at the defensive end of the ice. He's logging a lot of minutes on the penalty kill, and he's a plus-seven so far in the 2011 playoffs, which is a huge improvement on being a minus-30 over the past three regular seasons.

    While several of the Bruins top players have come up big so far in their playoff run, the bonus of Chris Kelly's seven points in just 11 games has to be encouraging for the team moving forward.

7. Nick Spaling: Nashville Predators

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    This may be the most unlikely of all the unlikely names on this list.

    In fact, if you live outside of Nashville and you knew who Nick Spaling was before the playoffs began please raise your hand. Anyone out there? Okay, maybe if you're also a Kitchener Rangers fan you might know him as well, but that's about it.

    In 102 career NHL regular season games, Spaling has a grand total of 17 points and is a minus-seven. But after being held off the score sheet entirely in the Predators' first-round playoff loss last year, Spaling already has six points in just 10 playoff games so far this year and is a plus-four.

    Oh and did I mention that he scored two goals, including the game winner, and was named the first star in his team's first-round series clinching victory against the Anaheim Ducks? That's not a bad time for a rookie who has averaged less than a point every five games in the regular season to step up. After all, it was only the most important game in the history of the Nashville Predators franchise.

    Spaling's performance in that game gave him instant notoriety around the NHL. He has come out of nowhere for the Predators and has gone from a fourth-line grinder who was rarely used during the regular season, to a legitimate scoring threat in these playoffs.

    However, if Nashville hopes to keep their playoff dreams alive and pull off an improbable comeback against the Vancouver Canucks, they might need even more production from Nick Spaling moving forward.

6. Niclas Wallin: San Jose Sharks

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    You might not recognize him without the increasingly bushy playoff beard, but that's Niclas Wallin in the photo. He is a stay-at-home defenseman who doesn't really have an offensive role in the regular season. However, in the playoffs he's been known to score big goals in the past, and this year is no exception.

    His only goal of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs so far was a third period blast coming down the wing that ended up being the game winner as the San Jose Sharks defeated the Detroit Red Wings in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. That brings his playoff point total to four, which is already halfway to his regular season point total of eight.

    Wallin doesn't log a ton of minutes compared to some of the Sharks defensemen, and when he does get on the ice, his job is to take care of things in his own zone. However, I doubt his teammates and coaches really mind that he's also chipped in with more than his share of points so far in the 2011 postseason.

5. Dominic Moore: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    When you have Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier on your roster, you wouldn't expect the majority of your scoring to come from the third line. But that's exactly what's happened in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    The trio of Dominic Moore, Steve Downie and Sean Bergenheim have been unbelievable for the Lightning, racking up a combined 28 points in the first two rounds. Those numbers would be impressive for the top line on most NHL teams, let alone the third line.

    Moore has eight of those points and has also been huge for the Bolts in the face-off circle during their first-round victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins and their second-round upset of the Washington Capitals.

    No one would have thought that one of the best lines to this point in the NHL playoffs would be the third line of the Tampa Bay Lightning. But then again, not many people thought the Lightning would make it this far in the playoffs either.

    Dominic Moore isn't the only member of this red hot line on this list of unlikely playoff heroes either. Keep reading to see where the other two members end up.

4. Brad Marchand: Boston Bruins

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    Rookies who produce just 41 points in the regular season aren't suppose to average a point per game in the playoffs. They're suppose to struggle and experience growing pains while learning how tough it is to be successful in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Aren't they?

    If so, someone forgot to tell Brad Marchand.

    Marchand has been lighting it up for the Boston Bruins on the score sheet in the playoffs and is still playing the hard-nosed agitating game that he played all season long. He is second on the team in scoring during his first NHL postseason with 11 points in 11 games and is a remarkable plus-nine.

    You can't ask for much more than that from a 22-year-old third-round draft pick who still hasn't played in 100 NHL regular season games yet.

    Marchand appears to be poised for a great NHL career if he can keep playing the way he's playing right now for the Bruins. He might even be able to hoist Lord Stanley's mug before his rookie season comes to a close.

3. Joel Ward: Nashville Predators

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    The Nashville Predators aren't known for their offense and they don't have a ton of explosive forwards on their roster. However, it's still surprising to see Joel Ward at the top of teams' scoring list in the 2011 playoffs.

    Ward finished the regular season tied for ninth in team scoring with just 29 points. However, in the playoffs, he already has nine points in 10 games and is halfway to his regular season goal output.

    The nine points put up by Ward is three more than the next highest Predator, which says a lot for a player who spent most of the year on the third line.

    Make no mistake. The Predators need their top regular season scorers to step their game up if they want to beat Vancouver in the second round. However, the emergence of Joel Ward is still a welcome addition to their offense in the 2011 playoffs.

2. Steve Downie: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The next member of the incredible Tampa Bay Lightning third line to make this list is Steve Downie.

    Downie has put up some decent numbers over the last two regular seasons. He had 46 points in 2009-2010 and 32 points in just 57 games this season.

    But that still doesn't come close to Downie's 12 points in 10 games to go along with a plus-nine in these playoffs.

    Downie is playing so well right now that he's actually tied for second in points so far in the playoffs, behind only his Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis.

    The third line of Tampa Bay certainly is on a role right now. But as hot as Steve Downie is, there's one even more unlikely player who is even hotter at the moment.

1. Sean Bergenheim: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Would you have believed me if I told you that Sean Bergenheim would be tied for the league lead in goals through nearly two rounds of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs?

    I didn't think so.

    After all, Bergenheim couldn't even crack the opening night roster for the dreadful New York Islanders back in October. Thankfully for him, the Tampa Bay Lightning took a chance on him and, even though he only put up 29 points during the regular season, he has been ridiculous for the Lightning so far in the playoffs.

    To put in perspective how unbelievable Bergenheim's seven goals in 11 playoff games have been, consider how many goals he would have if you averaged that out for an entire season. He'd be the newest member of the 50-goal club!

    Not bad for a guy who has never had more than 14 goals in a season before.

    Bergenheim and his linemates have been tearing it up for Tampa Bay in the 2011 playoffs. But as unlikely as it is for Steve Downie and Dominic Moore to be scoring at their current pace, no one has scored more big goals and been a bigger surprise in the playoffs than Sean Bergenheim.