Top 10 Key Players In Hockey’s Version Of The Final Four

Playoff Beard-less Cleary {photo courtesy Dan4th/Flickr}

Playoff Beard-less Cleary {photo courtesy Dan4th/Flickr}

Christopher Ralph is the staff columnist for the Toronto Maple Leafs at THW.

Of course, the Eastern and Western finalists all have their respective superstars which are the driving force of their franchises and have been instrumental in their teams’ advancement this deep in this year’s quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Beyond the superstars, however, are the unsung heroes who are key cogs in their own right, even if all they bring to the table may not show up on the stats sheets.

The second round of the playoffs saw three series going to the deciding game 7, with the other going to six games. Thus, with one of the most closely contested playoffs in NHL history, these often underrated players have an even greater impact on their team’s ability to escape the “Final Four” and battle it out for hockey’s Holy Grail.

Without further ado then, I present to you, in no particular order, 10 key players in the conference finals that will significantly influence their teams’  chances on advancing to the fourth and final round, in the most gruelling postseason in all of sports.

  1. Dan Cleary – A fellow Newfoundlander and most impressive playoff beard grower, Cleary has clearly found his place as a key performer in the NHL after a rough start to his career, being a highly touted 13th overall pick in 1997 ironically by fellow original 6 Western Conference opponent Chicago Blackhawks. Cleary is now more valued for his energy, checking and 2-way play, but has chipped in with an impressive 10 points in 12 games thus far (he has opened the scoring for the Wings today as I watch the first period). Check out fellow THW columnist Paul Benvin’s article for a great image and video of Cleary’s game 7 and series clinching goal against the Ducks in the second round. {Update: make that 11 points in 12 games with 2 goals in the opener!} Paul also takes note of Cleary’s play his latest article.
  2. Chris Kunitz – Trade deadline pickup Kunitz after a cool 18 points in 20 games with the Pens to close out the regular season, has not been able to make much of an impact on the scoreboard with no goals and only 7 assists in 13 playoff games to date this season. While fellow trade deadline pickup forward Bill Guerin has provided some nice secondary scoring, Kunitz has sputtered. Somewhere between now and the Stanley Cup, the Penguins are going to need some sort of offensive contribution from this talented forward. On a positive note, he has impressed me with the physical component of his game, effectively finishing some very nice checks on a consistent basis.
  3. Matt Walker – One tough customer, as evident by the video below in which his finger was contorted after a shot block in the Flames series – Walker returned to action later in the game, the Hawks’ third paining blueliner will be called upon to do battle with the deep Wings’ forward corps. He’ll be in a  clearing the likes of guys like Franzen and Holstrom from the front of the crease. httpv://
  4. Chad Larose – The energetic and scrappy forward has provided some nice secondary scoring for the ‘Canes. As fellow THW writer highlighted in her article “And How the Carolina Hurricanes Can Beat The Pittsburgh Penguins”, Paul Maurice might do well in assigning Larose the task of pestering SC87 to try and throw him off his game. Of course, easier said than done, but Larose is capable of making free ice hard to come by for Sid the Kid.
  5. Erik Cole – Almost a duplicate of Kunitz above, Cole averaged almost a PPG after coming over from the Oilers at the trade dealine. However, in the postseason he has no goals and meazley 2 assists in 14 games, even given the ‘Canes success. If Carolina has any hope of taking out Pittsburgh they will need offensive contributions from guys like Cole.
  6. Kris Letang – As Penburgh Blog reports, Letang is one of seven Penguins who are “having themselves a playoffs”: Last season Letang had 0 goals, 2 assists in the playoffs over 16 games. This year, through 12 games, Letang’s got 3 goals and 6 assists. Huge reversal, and ‘Tanger appeared to fight through what could have been a shoulder injury early in the Caps series without missing a beat.” If Gonchar is out at all or not 100%, Letang becomes an even more important piece of the puzzle. I’ve been a big fan of his since juniors and after watching his performances in back to back WJC gold medal wins in ’05 and ’06, you had to know Pittsburgh had themselves a third round steal.
  7. Dave Bolland – With the likes of Lidstrom and sidekicks on the blueline Rafalski, Stuart and Kronwall keying in on Kane, Toews, Sharp, Versteeg and Havlat, guys like Bolland will be counted on to provide offensive support. The versatile 2-way forward has had an impressive playoffs thus far contributing 9 points in 13 games. One unique characteristic that stands out for me that Bolland possesses is incredible hand-eye coordination. He has a great knack for picking clearing attempts out of the air.
  8. Sergei Samsonov – With 4 goals in the playoffs thus far and some important goals amongst them, the Caniac Nation will be looking for even more from the extremely talented forward. Consistency is the key for Samsonov, but again ‘Canes will require scoring from various resources. httpv://
  9. Tim Gleason – The shutdown rearguard will be counted on heavily in an effort to provide damage control by Crosby, Malkin and company. Early in this year’s postseason, Gleason notched his first goal of the season (including regular season) notching the OT winner in Game against the Devils in the first round. “It was exciting. It was exciting just to get a goal in general,” Gleason said. “It was a long year without one. I’m not too much of a talented guy. I pretty much wanted to hit the net and shoot it hard.” {The Star Ledger}
  10. Ben Eager – With 11 regular season goals, Eager has some finish, but it’s his physical, disruptive and energetic play that the ‘Hawks will depend upon in an effort to get the Red Wing Army off their game. Eager and Byfuglien are Chicago’s counter-punch to Detroit’s Holmstrom and Franzen’s physical play.
Ben Eager Airborne {Sean Ware/Flickr}

Ben Eager Airborne {Sean Ware/Flickr}

Honorable Mentions: Maxim Talbot, Dustin Byfuglien, Matt Cullen, Darren Helm, Matt Cooke, Adam Burish and Andrew Ladd.

Post your comments below with or without your own selected key performer(s).

Christopher Ralph

  • Christopher Ralph

    Looking back, 2 of my honorable mentions should have definitely been in the top 10 – Talbot & Helm!!!

  • Christopher Ralph

    Cleary strikes again last night, as well as honorable mention – Darren Helm!

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  • Christopher Ralph

    Chad Larose strikes again tonight!

    Kunitz finally finds twine – nets his 1st of the playoffs, an important go ahead goal at 19:52 of the 2nd period in Game 2!

  • Christopher Ralph

    Larose looked good last night.

    Cleary is at is again tonight – doing with his hands as he finds a hole in the Bulin Wall on the breakaway!

  • Christopher Ralph

    Tom: I have to agree with playing time distribution amongst forwards – The likes of Kane & Toews et al need to be out there more than 15 min per game. If it’s the fact that their play doesn’t warrant extra playing time, than the ‘Hawks are hooped anyhow.

    Of note Eager’s plus/minus was even for the game and Burish at +1 was the only Hawk with a plus rating. They are bringing it, but the offensive leaders have better get in the game sooner than later.

    We’ll have to see how things unfold on the fact you think the Ducks are better agitators than the ‘Hawks.

    Before the series is out, Eager will be just one of the ‘Hawks who’s going to have to make life difficult for the Wings if they hope to advance.

  • Tom

    Ben Eager??? C’mon… seriously. Sure he and Adam Burish bring good energy to the table, but if they think they will take the Wings players off their game then they are mistaken. That may work against other teams in the league, but not Detroit. They showed the same restraint against Anaheim, and Anaheim is way better at it. 12 and 11 minutes for Burish and Eager is WAY to much ice time for them against the Wings. Especially when Kane and Toews only got around 15 minutes each. As a Wings fan I am perfectly fine with them throwing that fourth line out more. That’s less work for Lidstrom.

  • Brink McBrair

    Look for Duncan Keith to make a big play soon.

  • Christopher Ralph

    stoneman: thanks for the feeedback.

    I agree with your comment of Kunitz’s physical game and I did not the same in the article above. He does bring more than goals and points to the ice, but if not this series then somewhere before they hoist the Cup if they hope to do so, the Penguins will likely need some contributions in the goal column from Kunitz.

  • stoneman

    I disagree with the kunitz description. While he was brought in to provide offense, he has provided other things. For a small guy he’s actually a fairly punishing checker. Let’s face it…previous to the acquisition he was a less than a point per game provider, playing with crosby he basically provides room for him to work.

    Though honestly…maybe fedotenko would be a better fit on that line (though he wasn’t prior); when kunitz was playing with staal that line was amazing…maybe that’s a better fit for him. They still find a way to win regardless.

  • Christopher Ralph

    I hear ya Rafal – Pitkanen has definitely fit in nicely with the ‘Canes. I guess I see him more as a primary contributor rather than the unsung hero type, but you are right in the fact he probably is under appreciated. I even think the same is still the case with the Keith-Seabrook combo in Chicago, but those 2 have had their fair of coverage in the playoffs.

  • Rafal Ladysz

    Nice job Chris. Can’t debate any of the names on this list. I would have included Joni Pitkanen because he hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves with his smooth tape-to-tape passing. It was he who set up Jussi Jokinen in game 7 against New Jersey for the tying goal and fed Samsonov perfectly for a goal in the seventh game of the Bruins series.

  • Christopher Ralph

    Thanks Kate with a “K” – appreciate the Erik correction!

  • Kate Shefte

    Erik Cole, with a ‘k’. Yeah, it’s weird. But I’m loving the list; nothing bad to say about a list with four out of ten ‘Canes! If Cole could finally start scoring, watch out. He has had so many good opportunities, but he seems to have lost that extra step he always had on the other teams’ defensemen that allowed him to “take off” and drive to the net with multiple sticks in his midsection. He did it once or twice against Boston, though, that was cool, even though none of them panned out. I wish he could somehow tap into power of the old 2002 “BBC” line days….Battaglia’s gone, so maybe Bayda in his place? Psshhh…
    Anyway, sorry for the lengthy and incoherent musings. Great post.