Merriam-Webster defines unsung as “not given attention and praise that is deserved for doing good things.” Each of the eight teams advancing past round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs had a player fitting that description. A Ser Davos Seaworth. A Chewbacca. A Daphne Moon.
Here are my top eight unsung heroes of the first round. Disclaimer: don’t confuse gritty or plucky with unsung. Brendan Gallagher has the heart of a young Simba, but we all know about it. He gets plenty of well-deserved hype, so he ain’t unsung.
1. Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings
All-world goalie Jonathan Quick stoned the Sharks with his acrobatics over L.A.’s four straight wins to close out San Jose. Drew Doughty controlled the pace of the game. Justin Williams did his clutch thang, and Anze Kopitar showed gorgeous touch on the winning goal in Game 7. But for once, the veteran-laden Kings got serious help from a kid. Toffoli isn’t a flash in the pan, either. He was a high-end sniper in junior, he lit up the American League and he displayed killer instinct against the Sharks with true goal scorer’s goals. His first two were game-winners and his last was a dagger in the Sharks’ hearts, putting L.A. up 3-1 in Game 7:
Side story: one of our better Separated at Birth submissions for the magazine this year compared Toffoli to actor Joel Edgerton. The reader who sent it to us: Brendan Shanahan.
2. Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins
Martin fits the Chewbacca comparison best, in that he’s plenty effective and well-known, but part of such a blockbuster juggernaut that his efforts don’t receive their due. You have to wonder where Pittsburgh would be without Martin, who led Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s team in scoring against Columbus. He averaged almost nine minutes on special teams per game. Kris Letang’s play also seemed to spike after Pens coach Dan Bylsma paired him with Martin for Games 5 and 6, which Pittsburgh won to close out Columbus.
3. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
To anyone outside Chicago: did you hear Crawford’s name mentioned once in the first round, other than critiques of his glove hand? Even a Stanley Cup ring hasn’t earned him respect. Ryan Miller couldn’t make the clutch saves when St. Louis needed them, whereas Crawford quietly sparkled with a 1.98 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. He didn’t steal a game, but didn’t let his team down, either.
4. Tomas Plekanec, Montreal Canadiens
The heady Hab pivot doesn’t get enough respect for his defensive proficiency. Is his Alexei Yashin-style turtleneck the reason? He took a ton of crucial faceoffs against Tampa Bay, winning more than half on Habs team that lost more than half overall, and scored the winner in Game 3. He posted the 16th-best Corsi Close percentage among 275 skaters in the first round, to boot.
5. Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild
For the slightly built Spurgeon, dealing with onslaughts form powerful forwards like Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon was a tall order. He wasn’t perfect – MacKinnon lit him up more than once – but he logged some heavy minutes, more than Jonas Brodin, and he got his revenge on MacKinnon to tie the score late in Game 7. Check out the patience, waiting out MacKinnon before he goes top corner on Semyon Varlamov:
6. Devante Smith-Pelly, Anaheim Ducks
Remember him from the 2012 world juniors? Pelly isn’t far removed from being an intriguing NHL prospect, and he reminded us of that in the first round against Dallas. He was just what Anaheim needed, a stout bowling ball at six-foot and 225 pounds. He dished out 23 hits in six games against a physical Dallas team and scored twice, including a heart-stopping equalizer, in Anaheim’s stunning Game 6 victory.
7. Dominic Moore, New York Rangers
The Masterton finalist has always possessed a skill set handy for tight playoff series. He’s fast, he’s great on faceoffs and he kills penalties. Moore chipped in a bit of clutch offense and won 57 percent of his draws against the Flyers. In the first round he started just 43.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, 232nd among qualified skaters, and he finished 53.7 percent in the offensive zone, the 118th best rate. In other words, when Moore was on the ice, the puck typically ended up in a better place than it started.
8. Johnny Boychuk, Boston Bruins
He logged a healthy 23 minutes per game, averaging almost four on the penalty kill, and blocked more shots than all but five players in the first round, even though he played at least one fewer game than all of them. It’s only a matter of time before the big Bruin bags his customary playoff goal or two with that booming shot, but for now he’s been useful for his lockdown defense.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin