Ranking the Biggest Overachievers in the 2014 NHL Playoffs
The Stanley Cup playoffs is a time when NHL players must rise to the occasion in the quest for a championship. It takes a full team effort to win the Stanley Cup. Everyone, from the biggest star to an unheralded role player, is expected to elevate his play.
While some stars wilt under the playoff pressure, it can also bring out the best in lesser-talented players. Playoff heroes and leaders can emerge from their ranks.
Sometimes a checking-line forward will surface as a clutch scorer. A promising young player can make a name for himself with a solid postseason performance. An ageing veteran sometimes rediscovers his long-lost scoring touch. A player who struggles through the regular season can find a missing gear when the playoffs begin.
Here's a list of 10 NHL players who have overachieved thus far in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
10. Shawn Horcoff, Dallas Stars
Though still a valuable checking-line center, the 35-year-old Horcoff's best days were behind him entering this year's playoffs. With only seven goals and 20 points in 77 games this season, few expected much offense from him.
In the Stars' divisional semifinal against the Anaheim Ducks, Horcoff rediscovered his long-lost offensive touch. He led the Stars in assists (five) and points (six), was second in plus/minus (plus-five) and fifth in hits (11). Though the Stars ultimately fell in six games to the Ducks, Horcoff's efforts helped them get that far.
The realization that he's in the twilight of his career was motivation for Horcoff. "I made the playoffs my rookie season, and I thought that I would make it every year. I just took it for granted," he told the Dallas Morning News' Mike Heika. "This is my fourth time in 13 years. I tell the younger players to savor every moment, because you don't know what's going to happen, you don't know how many chances you're going to get." Clearly, Horcoff made the most of this chance.
9. James Sheppard, San Jose Sharks
A former first-round pick (ninth overall in 2006), Sheppard was projected to become an NHL scoring star. A left knee injury sidelined him for the entire 2010-11 season and most of 2011-12. Acquired by the Sharks from the Minnesota Wild, Sheppard netted 20 points in 67 games this season largely in a checking-line role.
In the Sharks' first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings, Sheppard rediscovered his offensive form, tallying two goals and six points in seven games. His point numbers tied him with Joe Pavelski for second in team scoring, plus he was second in shots (27). The 26-year-old also tied for the team lead in plus/minus (plus-three) and led the club in hits with 35.
San Jose's stunning collapse to the Kings, eliminated in seven games after blowing a three-to-nothing series lead, overshadowed Sheppard's solid performance. Hopefully his playoff performance is an indication he's getting his NHL career back on track.
8. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings
Toffoli had a promising debut last season with the Kings, collecting five points in 10 regular-season games, followed by six points in 12 games during the 2013 playoffs. In his full rookie campaign, Toffoli acquitted himself well, with 29 points in 62 games.
The 22-year-old center found another gear in this year's playoffs. With six points in 12 games, he's sitting sixth on the Kings in scoring, leading them in game-winning goals with two.
Toffoli and linemate Tanner Pearson (five points in 10 games) have earned praise from teammates for their efforts. “They've brought a lot of energy, a lot of speed, a lot of skill,” center Jarret Stoll told NHL.com's Corey Masisak. Toffoli told Masisak it was a case of being confident. “You can't be scared to make a couple of mistakes, and just make sure you're working hard,” he said. Toffoli's hard work has paid off so far.
7. Patrick Maroon, Anaheim Ducks
Prior to this season, Maroon seemed destined to spend his pro career in the minors. The book on the 6'3”, 229-pound left winger was he had good offensive skills but lacked the skating to become an NHL regular. He was considered a depth forward at best.
The Ducks, however, gave him a chance this season, and he responded with decent regular-season numbers (29 points in 62 games). In his Stanley Cup playoffs debut, the 26-year-old became a scoring machine. Placed on a line with center Mathieu Perreault and 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, Maroon is the Ducks' third-leading scorer with seven points in 11 games.
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau recently sang Maroon's praises. “He has been fabulous. I can't say enough about Patrick Maroon,” Boudreau told The Edmonton Sun's Derek Van Diest (via Toronto Sun). “I think the longer he's been up here, the better his skating has gotten where that used to be a question about him. He's been really good. You can't ask for more than what Patrick Maroon has given us this year.”
6. Erik Haula, Minnesota Wild
Prior to this year's playoffs, few NHL fans outside of Minnesota probably knew who Haula was. Considered a promising young playmaker, the 23-year-old Finnish center was called up in late November, finishing the season with 15 points in 46 games.
In the playoffs, Haula has emerged as a solid two-way center. With six points in 12 games, he ranks among the Wild's leading scorers. He also tallied the winning goal for the Wild in Game 3. The Pioneer Press' Chad Graff recently singled out Haula's play. “He's become the kind of third-line center the Wild have lacked for years,” wrote Graff. “One that has consistently produced offensively in addition to a shutdown defensive game.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo also sees the upside in Haula's game this postseason. “If we see a guy like that, who's a responsible defensive player, we're not going to say he's only going to be a third-line checker,” Yeo told Graff. “We're going to see if he can continue to keep the things that he needs and the things that we need from him, but see what we can add onto that.”
5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins
Krug first came to notice during last year's playoffs. Called up to fill gaps in the Bruins' banged-up blue line, the speedy 5'9”, 181-pound defenseman with the quick shot tallied four goals and six points in 15 postseason games. He followed up with a solid rookie season, netting 40 points in 79 games to finish tied with Zdeno Chara for eighth in Bruins scoring, and finishing fourth overall in NHL rookie scoring.
Impressive as those numbers were, the 23-year-old has stepped it up in the 2014 playoffs. Krug's currently tied with Patrice Bergeron for the Bruins' scoring lead with nine points in 11 games, as well as tied for the team lead in power-play points.
Bruins coach Claude Julien credits having a season's experience for the improvement in Krug's play compared to the 2013 postseason. “I can't say enough about what experience does for you,” Julien told The Boston Herald's Adam Kurkjian. He pointed out Krug isn't making the mistakes he did a year ago when under pressure. “So far he's been pretty steady, pretty reliable and had made some good plays,” said Julien.
4. Lars Eller, Montreal Canadiens
After netting a career-high 30 points in 46 games during last season's lockout-shortened campaign, there was expectation Eller was poised to break through as a scoring forward this season. After a promising start, however, he bounced throughout the Canadiens lineup, finishing the season with only 26 points in 77 games, along with a team-worst plus/minus of minus-15.
Once the playoffs began, however, Eller rediscovered the scoring touch which seemingly abandoned him in the regular season. With four goals and nine points in 10 games, the 25-year-old Dane was second in team scoring, while his plus/minus of plus-three ranked among the team leaders. He also ranked seventh in hits (19).
Eller's performance has been overshadowed by the stellar play of teammates P.K. Subban and Carey Price. Without his improved play, the Canadiens may have found it more difficult to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning, let alone push the Boston Bruins to a seventh and deciding game. Perhaps this is the harbinger of better things to come for Eller.
3. Benoit Pouliot, New York Rangers
Prior to this season, Pouliot had a reputation as a former first-round pick (fourth overall in 2005) who failed to blossom into the scoring star he was projected to become. After washing out with Minnesota, Montreal, Boston and Tampa Bay, Pouliot resurrected his career this season as a checking-line winger with the New York Rangers. He reached career-highs in assists (21) and points (36) and finished fourth on the Rangers in blocked shots (141).
In this year's postseason, Pouliot rediscovered the scoring touch that once made him a highly touted prospect. His eight points in 13 games ties him for the Rangers' scoring lead, while his three goals ties him for second with Brad Richards and Mats Zuccarello. He's also been a physical presence, tied for fourth with Derek Dorsett in hits (30), and is fourth in plus/minus with plus-five.
Pouliot is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Given the choice, he hopes to re-sign with the Rangers. “I enjoyed every day here this year," Pouliot told The Wall Street Journal's Dave Caldwell. “If they want me to be back, I'll be happy to be back.” Given his playoff performance, there's a very good chance he'll get his wish.
2. Brandon Sutter, Pittsburgh Penguins
Sutter is a former first-round pick (11th overall by Carolina in 2007) who failed to blossom into the two-way star he was projected to become. Since being dealt to the Penguins in 2011, he's carved out a niche as an effective checking-line center.
Coming off a season in which Sutter tallied only 26 points in 81 games, the 25-year-old has become a very effective two-way playoff performer. His five goals in 12 games ranks second behind Evgeni Malkin and Jussi Jokinen, while his seven points ranks among the Penguins playoff leaders. He's also tied with defenseman Paul Martin for the best plus/minus (plus-seven) and tied with Martin and Brian Gibbons in short-handed points (2). Sutter also leads all Penguins forwards in blocked shots (10) and is second to Sidney Crosby in faceoff wins (100).
With stars like Crosby, James Neal and Chris Kunitz struggling, Sutter's playoff performance has made him a standout for the Penguins this spring.
1. Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks
Bickell was a beast during the Blackhawks' march to the 2013 Stanley Cup. After potting only 23 points in 48 games last season, the 6'4”, 233-pound left wing finished second in playoff scoring for the 'Hawks with 17 points in 23 games. He was also second in goals (nine), including two game-winners and led the club in hits (85). That performance contributed to his re-signing a four-year, $16 million contract extension following the playoffs.
Expectations were heightened for Bickell this season, but he struggled through an injury-shortened campaign, netting only 15 points in 59 games. Once the 2014 playoffs began, however, the 28-year-old rediscovered his scoring touch. In 11 games Bickell leads the Blackhawks in goals (six) and sits fourth in points. He's once again a physical presence, leading the 'Hawks in hits with 45.
The Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Lazerus reports Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville would love to see this version of Bickell year-round but is happy to see him ramp up his game for the playoffs. “I think every team in the league would love to have that power forward that brings that element to their game,” Quenneville told Lazerus. “Those players are hard to find. So we're happy to have him now, but certainly we'd love that consistency.” As long as Bickell keeps bringing that consistency in the playoffs, the Blackhawks won't mind.