Every year, the Stanley Cup finals serve as a coming-out party for different players, as each shows what they're capable of in the most pressure-filled moments of the season. In 2010, there were a slew of players on the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks who made names for themselves during the Finals, such as Ville Leino, Claude Giroux, Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg.
The Stanley Cup finals are a grand stage for even the most blue-collar type players, as Edmonton Oilers' Fernando Pisani showed in 2006, and this year looks to be no different. While each team has their clear-cut star players, both the Boston Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks have young, relatively unproven players who could use this year's finals as a launching pad for their careers.
With that being said, let's take a look at the top six players that are ready for stardom entering the 2011 finals.
For a 24-year-old, Brad Marchand has already made quite a name for himself in Boston hockey circles. As a member of one of the Bruins' most effective two-way lines, Marchand does everything that coach Claude Julien asks of him, from agitating and getting under the skin of the opposition's best players to scoring timely goals and contributing offensively.
With 12 points through 18 playoff games thus far, Marchand is fourth on the team in scoring, and he could build on that starting tomorrow night. Though it's just his second NHL season, Marchand has big-game experience, as he was a key member of Canada's back-to-back gold medal-winning teams at the World Junior Championships in 2007 and 2008. He's a hardworking player who embodies the Bruins' personality perfectly, and if Boston is going to pull off the upset and topple the Canucks, Marchand will have to play a big role.
The Vancouver Canucks win by out-skating and out-finishing their opposition, and they're able to do so because of their incredible depth up front. One player who needs to contribute more if Vancouver's going to win is Mason Raymond, the 'Nucks young speedster out of Cochrane, Alberta.
Raymond had a somewhat disappointing regular season in 2011, as his point totals dropped from 53 to 39, and his offensive production in the postseason hasn't been much better. With just two goals in the playoffs so far, Raymond is due for a couple of goals. Like Alexandre Burrows, Raymond is a streaky scorer, just the kind that could catch fire in a seven-game series and be a difference maker.
Whether that happens is up to Mason Raymond, but the opportunity for him to step up and etch his name in Stanley Cup finals history is before him.
There was no bigger story during the early stages of the conference finals than the emergence of Bruins' rookie Tyler Seguin. After being a healthy scratch for the first two rounds of the playoffs, Seguin was inserted into the Boston lineup when Patrice Bergeron went down with a concussion. In his first two playoff games, Seguin was a revelation, posting six points on three goals and three assists.
While he fizzled out a little bit from there, tallying no points in the final five games of the series, Seguin obviously has a flair for the dramatic, something the Bruins desperately need. Outside of Nathan Horton, they don't have any particularly dangerous goal scorers (Milan Lucic is not Ryan Kesler or Daniel Sedin), so if Seguin steps up for the Bruins, it will go a long way towards helping their Stanley Cup fortunes against Vancouver.
The 2011 Western Conference finals was the true coming out party for Canucks' defenseman Kevin Bieksa, as he was possibly Vancouver's most important player during the team's five-game series win over San Jose. Prior to that series, Bieksa was regarded as a solid, tough defensive rearguard who isn't afraid of mixing it up with the biggest players the opposition has to offer.
He did all that and more against the Sharks, as he tallied four goals and an assist, including the series-winning double overtime goal in game five. The fact that Bieksa scored four goals wasn't as impressive as the way in which he scored them. Yes, the series-winning goal was a lucky one that Sharks goalie Antii Niemi surely wants to have back, but he showed unprecedented offensive flair over the course of the series. In Game 1, he scored a beautiful top-shelf goal from a bad angle and followed that up with a calm, composed, breakaway marker in Game 2.
Bieksa has shown that he's capable of elevating his game in pressure-filled situations, and if he can do so on hockey's biggest stage, he just might find his name near the top of the list for the Conn Smythe trophy.
While Milan Lucic has been something of a cult hero for the last three seasons in Boston, he's only now beginning to garner recognition for his offensive game throughout the rest of North America. As the Bruins' leading goal scorer this year, Lucic proved that he's more than simply a bruising forward who can drop the gloves when called upon. Instead, he's been one of the most dangerous power forwards in the playoffs so far, making his presence felt in every way possible.
Lucic, a Vancouver native, will have to be his usual wrecking ball self if the Bruins are going to knock the fundamentally sound Canuck defensive corps off their game. Lucic finishes his hits harder than almost any power forward in the game and will almost assuredly get into a skirmish or two with Canucks' agitators like Ryan Kesler and Maxim Lapierre before the series is over. However, Lucic needs to raise his game offensively if the Bruins hope to make noise in this series, as he's posted just three goals this postseason.
The hulking winger opened eyes with his play during the 2008-2009 playoffs, earning a spot at Team Canada's olympic orientation camp the following summer. If he performs at both ends of the the rink to the best of his abilities, Lucic will likely be regarded as the second coming of Hall of Fame winger Cam Neely by the time these Finals are in the books.
While there are probably a handful of players who will have a greater impact on the outcome of the series than Ryan Kesler, almost none stand more to gain. Kesler is one of the most marketable American-born players in the game, even though he plays in a western Canadian city, which just goes to show how much potential he has.
On the ice, he's as competitive as they come. Kesler will get leveled, score a goal and taunt the opposition's bench in one shift, and do it all with a smile on his face. He's the type of player every guy on the opposing team hates to play against, yet would do anything to have him on their bench. He scores clutch goals, forechecks tirelessly and leaves everything he has on the ice every night, which is why he's become a fan favorite in Vancouver.
Better yet, he saves his best for big games, which bodes well for the Canucks' Stanley Cup finals chances. Kesler is likely the fourth biggest star on Vancouver's roster behind reigning scoring champions Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and gold medal-winning netminder Roberto Luongo. However, Kesler has the opportunity to leapfrog any and all of them if he puts on a virtuoso performance in the playoffs, which he is clearly capable of.