When the Stanley Cup playoffs start next week, just think about three things: Chicago Blackhawks, great goaltending and Alex Ovechkin.
The Blackhawks are the best team in the National Hockey League. The record doesn’t lie and even after just 46 games, a mark of 35-6-5 is pretty impressive. Yes, Pittsburgh (35-11-0) is really solid (a ROW of 32 is quite impressive), but the President’s Trophy-winning Blackhawks have been great from the start of the season and there is no reason to believe they’ll run out of gas before the middle of June.
It is the Stanley Cup playoffs. As Brian Burke once said, “We call it the Stanley Cup playoffs because we can’t call it goalie.” He knew, as most coaches and GMs do, that you can’t win in the playoffs without a lights out goaltender: Tim Thomas two years ago and Jonathan Quick last year, both Conn Smythe Trophy winners, are two great examples. Goaltenders have won the Conn Smythe Trophy 15 times since 1965. Patrick Roy has won it a record three times. Great goaltending is the key to the Cup.
And then there is Alex Ovechkin. Up until the middle of April, I was still convinced that Sidney Crosby was the Hart Trophy winner this year, but Ovechkin has exploded. Now, I’m another rider on the Ovie bandwagon. In the month of April, the Washington Capitals have played 12 games. Ovechkin has 13 goals and six assists and the Caps have gone 10-1-1 and locked up the Southeast Division title and third overall in the East.
“I’m obviously very biased about that, so my answer would be yeah, absolutely, he should win the Hart Trophy,” said Capitals head coach Adam Oates said after Ovechkin had a goal and an assist in a 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. “Obviously Sidney Crosby is another candidate, for sure. He had such a scoring lead, but I think you’ve got to factor in the fact he’s missed a lot of games. “Obviously Alex has really led our team, and you see it every night now.”
Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals and is fourth in points. When the playoffs roll around, the Capitals will live and/or die on every Ovechkin shift.
However, while the aforementioned are the three keys to following this year’s NHL playoffs, there will be some other players who will be front and centre. Earlier this week we looked at the eight players who we think will do well in the playoffs even though you might not expect them to be a big part of the post-season, our Top 8 Sleepers.
Today we’re going to look at the 10 players who will be front and centre, keys to their respective teams playoff hopes.
Ovechkin is No. 1, here are the next nine:
Jonathan Toews, C, Chicago Blackhawks: He’s been called by some scouts, “the best all-around player in the NHL this season.” Toews scores (22 goals and 25 assists), he checks, he wins faceoffs (59.9 per cent) and he’s a rockin’ plus-28. If the Blackhawks go as far as we all expect, Toews could be your non-goalie Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins: He’s been injured since Game 36 (March 30) when he took a slap-shot square in the jaw, but there is talk in Pittsburgh that he’ll be ready for the post-season. If he plays, the Penguins could easily win the Cup. It will be as much fun watching just to see if he plays as it will be to watch him play. He has medical clearance to resume practicing today. Could he actually play next week? We’ll be watching.
Henrik Zetterberg, LW, Detroit Red Wings: Zetterberg has five assists in his last two games and there might not be a better playmaker in the game. However, it’s also important that the Red Wings have a healthy Zetterberg because without him playing well, they don’t seem to win very often. He has only nine goals to go with 34 assists. Pavel Datsyuk is still the best all-around player on a Red Wings team that will be dangerous in the post-season, but without his playmaker, Zetterberg, Datsyuk is not the same threat.
Erik Karlsson, D, Ottawa Senators: He’s b-a-a-a-ck and the Senators are a better team for it. The 2012 Norris Trophy winner has not played since Feb. 13, when he suffered a 70 per cent tear to the Achilles tendon in his left leg during a game against Pittsburgh when the league’s nastiest goon, Matt Cooke, jammed his skate into the back of Karlsson’s ankle. It was a dirty play, but the league didn’t take action and Ottawa was without their best player for most of the season. Now that he’s back, the Senators have clinched a playoff berth (in his first game back) and they might have a chance to do some damage in the post-season.
Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York Rangers: If the Rangers do anything at all in the playoffs it will because of their goaltender. Period.
Ryan Suter, D, Minnesota Wild: So far, Ryan Suter has been worth every penny the Wild paid him this season ($12 million). In fact, Minnesota wouldn’t have a sniff of the playoffs if it weren’t for the veteran defenseman. He has four goals and 28 assists in all 46 Wild games this season and he’s playing a league-high 27 minutes and 13 seconds per game. He has Norris Trophy written all over him and he might have the Conn Smythe as well if he keeps doing what he’s doing deep into the post-season.
Tuukka Rask, G, Boston Bruins: A real threat to win the Vezina Trophy this year, Rask has played 33 games for the Bruins and has a record of 18-9-4. His goals against average is 2.03 and his save percentage is .927. If the Bruins win the Cup, Rask wins the Conn Smythe.
Ryan Getzlaf, C, Anaheim Ducks: With 15 goals and 32 assists, he’s the 11th leading scorer in the NHL. He’s a terrific plus-14 and he plays 20 minutes a game. He’s the playmaker on a team that has surprised everyone this season by winning the Pacific Division. It’s one of the highest scoring teams in the game and Getzlaf is a big reason. If the Ducks intend to match their regular season play in the Stanley Cup tournament, Getzlaf has to be the leader.
Corey Crawford, G, Chicago Blackhawks: When the Hawks lost Ray Emery (16-1-0 this season) in the first period of Wednesday night’s game in Edmonton, there was some worry that the Hawks successful goaltending tandem might be broken up for the playoffs. As it turned out Emery had the dreaded “lower body injury” and after allowing a goal on eight shots on Wednesday, Emery left ad Crawford came in. To one’s surprise, he was lights out. In 29 games this season, Crawford is 18-5-5 with a 1.98 goals against average and .925 save percentage. If Emery can’t go, it will be all on Crawford and if the 28-year-old from Montreal stays hot, the Hawks could win 16 playoff games in a hurry.