NHL Playoffs 2012: 6 Most Important Players in Wednesday's Games

Kyle Alexander@kalexanderSM101Contributor IIIApril 18, 2012

NHL Playoffs 2012: 6 Most Important Players in Wednesday's Games

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    Two teams considered most elite and that playoff seeding considered "favorites" will attempt to stave off elimination tonight on the road.

    The Penguins will look to find some way to build a lead and then maintain it, while avoiding trends from the three previous games when their scores early on were surpassed after the Flyers came storming back.

    Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators will try to find a way to produce offense without captain Daniel Alfredsson against a stingy New York Rangers defense and Henrik Lundqvist's superb goaltending. Lundqvist stopped all 39 shots he faced in Game 3, a 1-0 Ranger victory in Ottawa.

    And the Vancouver Canucks offense will try again to solve L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick, who has stymied them so far in leading his Kings to a 3-0 series lead.

    Here's a quick preview of the six most important players from tonight's games, one from each team.

1. Jason Spezza

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    According to the Ottawa Senators official Twitter account, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson did not take the pre-game skate today which means he is most likely out again for Game 4 after suffering a setback while recovering from a concussion he received from a Carl Hagelin elbow.

    With Alfredsson set to sit out again, the offense and captaincy fall on Jason Spezza's shoulders.

    After a dazzling regular season where he finished fourth overall in scoring with 84 points in 80 games, Spezza has just one assist in the three playoff games he has played so far.

    He's routinely been matched up against the top defensive pairing for the Rangers of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi who have worked hard to keep Spezza and the rest of Ottawa's top line off the score sheet.

    But at home, coach Paul MacLean needs to utilize his last change to try to free up Spezza against some of the other defensive units to see if he can't spark his superstar.

    If Ottawa is going to win Game 4 and tie the series, Spezza needs to find his scoring touch—and soon. 

2. Brian Boyle

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    For Rangers fans, he is a hero.

    For Senators fans, a real villain.

    Either way, Brian Boyle is a man to watch for the New York Rangers in tonight's Game 4 matchup with the Ottawa Senators.

    He roughed up young defenseman Erik Karlsson in Game 1 and took a vicious retaliatory beating from Matt Carkner in Game 2 for which Carkner received a one game suspension.

    Boyle followed that up with a stellar performance in Game 3, scoring the only goal of the game in a 1-0 Ranger win. That makes three total playoff goals for Boyle, two of which have been game winners as he continues to establish a reputation as a Senator-killer.

    He also has a plus-2 rating, 13 hits (tie for the team lead) and 4 blocked shots in 18:07 time on ice per game for the Rangers in the playoffs so far.

    Matt Carkner will be back in the lineup tonight for the Senators after sitting out Game 3 while serving his suspension. Whether it's lighting the lamp or dropping the gloves, expect to see a big impact from Brian Boyle.

3. Marc-Andre Fleury

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    Though his teammates are refusing to blame the embattled goaltender, the numbers speak for themselves.

    Fleury has a .798 save percentage and a 6.34 GAA in his three playoff games this year.

    Why not go to the backup goaltender then, you ask?

    Well, Brent Johnson is the only goalie in the playoffs with stats that are even worse, as he sports a miserable .667 save percentage and an even 6.00 GAA albeit in only 20 minutes played.

    But if the Penguins have any chance of salvaging this series, or even just some pride, they will have to do it with Fleury in net.

    Admittedly, Fleury has often been hung out to dry by a Penguins defense that looks downright clueless or worse, clumsy at times. He's been especially unfortunate to face a team that is converting 60 percent of their power plays and is getting very little help clearing the front of the net or eliminating cross crease passes.

    That said, the numbers just don't lie. Fleury needs to be better tonight if the Penguins have any hope of staying alive.

4. Claude Giroux

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    We may be only slightly more than halfway through the opening round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, but Claude Giroux is certainly making a case for himself as an early Conn Smythe favorite should the Flyers go all the way.

    He currently leads the playoffs in all major offensive categories—8 points on 4 goals and 4 assists and a plus-5 rating. He is a huge reason why Philadelphia is scoring 6.67 goals per game against the Penguins, and he's finding ways to create offense in all game situations—power play, even strength and even short-handed.

    It really is time Giroux be permanently included in the "elite players" conversation following his performance in this series so far, particularly compared to consensus superstars Sidney Crosby and likely Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, both of whom he has outplayed considerably.

    Tonight, Giroux will look to put the final nail in Pittsburgh's coffin, and the way he has played lately, I wouldn't bet against him.

5. Jonathan Quick

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    There is no denying he has been stellar. He's probably been the best goalie in these playoffs so far, and that is saying a lot as several other netminders including Pekka Rinne and Henrik Lundqvist have also been spectacular.

    Most thought that Quick would have to stand on his head and steal a few games in order for L.A. to win this series. But after two games in Vancouver, that did not seem like the case—L.A. outplayed Vancouver in Game 1 and Game 2, forcing the Canucks out of their game plan and quickly stealing home ice advantage and the chance for a stranglehold on the series.

    Then came Game 3, and Quick did stand on his head. He did steal a game, and now tonight Vancouver has to win Game 4 on the road or be swept out of the playoffs.

    Vancouver out shot L.A. 41-20 in Game 3, and with nothing left to lose, you can expect a similar offensive barrage from the Canucks tonight. If the Kings are going to complete the sweep, Quick will need to be almost perfect (or better) again.

    For the playoffs, he has a ridiculous 1.33 GAA and a .965 save percentage against the Presidents' Trophy winners while making a healthy 37 saves per game, second only to Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith's 41.3.

6. Henrik Sedin

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    He is the captain, and his team faces elimination on the road.

    He must produce.

    Henrik Sedin has just two points in the three games against the Kings so far, and that includes over 5 minutes of time on ice per game on the power play.

    Henrik is clearly missing his brother's skills on the top line for the Canucks, but if he wants to prove that he is a true superstar and leader in this league, he needs to do it even without Daniel on his wing.

    Although the Canucks were still successful at the end of the regular season without Daniel Sedin, they managed by tightening up defensively rather than relying on other, less skilled players to pick up the offense Daniel would normally provide.

    Unfortunately, they've run into a team in Round 1 that they can't beat in a slow paced, chip and chase, defensively sound game. They are in a 3-0 hole after being forced to play the Kings' game for much of the series.

    The Canucks need to open their game up and let Henrik create some offense on the rush if they want to stave off elimination tonight in Los Angeles.