2011 NHL Playoffs: 10 Most Important Players in the Eastern Conference Finals
While we await the outcome out West, the 2011 Eastern Conference Final matchup is set after a pair of sweeps. The Tampa Bay Lightning knocked out their division-rival Washington Capitals, while the Boston Bruins avenged their epic playoff collapse from last year at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, dispatching them in four games as well.
The paths these teams took to get this far has produced some great performances from goaltenders, household names and new faces. These players are going to have to continue to rise to the occasion in order to get to the Stanley Cup Final. Here's a look at the 10 most important players in this series.
10. Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic has gotten off to a slow start through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the Bruins are going to have to get more production out of him in order to match up with the potential that the Bolts' offense has, even if they're shooting on Tim Thomas.
Lucic has posted two goals and three assists in 11 playoff games so far, but his production should rise after he notched his first goals in the second round against the Flyers. His great physical stature can really help Boston in its own end by limiting Tampa's talented forwards to much open ice.
Lucic can have a lasting impact on this series, but he is going to have to pick it up in the scoring column to help Boston the most.
9. Sean Bergenheim
Sean Bergenheim has fit under the category of surprising playoff heroes, leading the Lightning with seven goals in 11 games. He only had 14 goals all season, and the Bolts are hoping he keeps up this torrid pace.
His offensive production has also been a welcome addition considering the absence of Simon Gagne. Gagne was hurt early on in the postseason and has missed most of Tampa's playoff slate. However, he should be able to return at some point in the third round.
If Bergenheim continues his scoring pace and Gagne is able to contribute coming back from injury, it is only going to make the Bolts' offense harder to stop.
8. David Krejci
David Krejci was knocked out early in last year's second round before Boston's historic collapse against the Flyers, leaving him only hungrier to perform this spring. He has been very production in these playoffs and was instrumental as the Bruins avenged last year's collapse with a sweep of the Flyers.
Krejci has put up five goals and five assists in these playoffs, including three game winning goals for the Bruins in the second round. It will be interesting to see where his production goes when he faces Dwayne Roloson and not the Flyers' poor goaltending carousel.
He has scored points in each of the last four games and will be a key factor for creating more opportunities for the Bruins against a good playoff goalie in Dwayne Roloson.
7. Nathan Horton
Nathan Horton had to wait eight years for his first crack at the NHL playoffs and has had a great start this spring. He scored the game winning goal in overtime of Game 7 against Montreal in the quarterfinals to go with four other goals this spring.
He continued his hot play into the Flyers series, where he scored seven of his 10 playoff points in just four games. It will be interesting to see how Horton as well as other Boston scorers perform without Patrice Bergeron in the line-up. Bergeron suffered a "mild" concussion when colliding with Claude Giroux in Game 4, according to Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.
Horton has been a great addition as a pure scorer for the Bruins all year long, finishing second behind Milan Lucic in goals. Both forwards need to be on their game in the East Final.
6. Steven Stamkos
It's debatable as to where a player like Stamkos should fall on this list, but for this series he falls in the group of players that should be looking to break out more in this series. Like Lucic, Stamkos led his team in goals during the regular season but did not get off to a fast start in the playoffs.
But it is wrong to put Milan Lucic in the same breath as Steven Stamkos. Stamkos scored 15 more times than Lucic this year and owns a Rocket Richard Trophy. His capability to take over a game is clearly more existent than Lucic's. The Bolts may need him to shine in a few games during this series.
In a series where the Lightning will have to beat Tim Thomas four times, they need their most dangerous goal scorer to really produce. If Stamkos nets five goals, this series is bound to be close.
5. Vincent Lecavalier
The placement of Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos on this list was a tough call. Lecavalier lands one spot higher because of his Stanley Cup experience and higher numbers so far this spring. The Bolts' captain is tied for second in playoff scoring list with 12 points.
He scored a few big goals in the Washington series to give the Lightning some separation from the top seed, including the game winner in Game 2. He is riding a four-game point streak that includes three goals and three assists.
The presence of Vincent Lecavalier in the Lightning lineup solidifies Tampa's solid unit of forwards, even without Simon Gagne. On this relatively young team, playoff experience is huge, and Lecavalier has it.
4. Zdeno Chara
Zdeno Chara is going to have the tall task (no pun intended) of slowing down the potent Lightning offense in all situations. The Norris Trophy nominee has been up to the task of taking care of Philly and Montreal's offense to the tune of a plus-11 rating in the playoffs.
Chara headlines a unit that has the capability to keep the Lightning at bay in the offensive end. This could not be more clear after the Bruins got past the Flyers in four. Boston only allowed three goals once in the Philadelphia series, a testament to the Bruins' great defense as well as Tim Thomas.
Chara has the ability to shut down anyone in the league. The Bruins should like their chances if he and the rest of their defensemen can shut down the Lightning for a sustained part of this series.
3. Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis has a legitimate chance to win both the Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies this year. After a 99-point regular campaign St. Louis has jumped off in the playoffs with 13 points, leading the league along with Ryan Kesler, Ryane Clowe and Pavel Datsyuk.
St. Louis is leading the playoffs in scoring on the most resilient team in these playoffs. The Bolts are riding a seven-game winning streak, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit against Pittsburgh and sweeping the Capitals.
St. Louis is the straw that stirs the drink for this Lightning offense and can create opportunities to beat the Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas. He is going to need to be at the top of his game to get enough chances against a stout Bruins' D as well.
2. Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas is leading the race for the Vezina Trophy after an off year interrupted his last Vezina Trophy season in 2008-09. He is one of the players this spring that has the clearest potential to steal games, like Game Two of the second round against the Flyers. In an overtime win Thomas stopped 52 of 54 shots in a game where Philadelphia dominated at times.
This series features the top two goalies in the postseason so far. Thomas has posted a 2.03 goals allowed average and has held his composure under pressure. The Bruins are 4-0 in overtime games in the 2011 playoffs, including three in the first round (one being in Game Seven). If Thomas and the Bruins were not such a good team under pressure, these playoffs could have looked very different.
The Lightning are going to have to create a lot of chances and jump ahead early on Thomas to gain the upper hand for the balance of this series. If not, the Bruins are built to play well in close games, as their overtime and overall performance this spring suggests.
1. Dwayne Roloson
Dwayne Roloson is showing his 2006 playoff form, where he backstopped the Edmonton Oilers to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes. While not having the most notable defense corps in front of him, "Rolo" is leading the playoffs with a 2.01 GAA.
Boston is going up against a goalie that is actually outplaying their Vezina Trophy favorite by the smallest of margins. Moreover, the Bruins are going to be without Patrice Bergeron, who has led the charge with 10 assists in the playoffs. Another thing to consider is how Boston is going from shooting on a goalie platoon that had a collective GAA above 3.00 (Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky) to having to score on the best goalie in the playoffs.
Not only has Roloson given Tampa the chance to be where they are right now, he is the top reason why. He is the early favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Lightning end up winning the Cup for the first time since 2004. Look for his performance to be the largest individual influence in this series.