Capitals winger Joel Ward celebrates his game-winning goal late in the third period to beat the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 1 of their second-round series. (Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Stars are expected to score in the post-season, but it’s usually the depth players that make all the difference. With two rounds of the playoffs nearly complete, here are the five players who are unexpectedly making the biggest difference for their teams.
When picking a prospective Stanley Cup champion, often looked to are the big name stars who can turn their game up a notch in the post-season to carry their teams to playoff glory. But, as happens every single year, it’s sometimes the unlikeliest of players that become the heroes.
Heading into the 2013-14 playoffs, few would have expected Justin Williams to be the Los Angeles King that emerged to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy, especially on a roster than includes stars like Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter. It was Williams, however, who found the score sheet in the three consecutive Game 7s the Kings played en route to their second Stanley Cup victory in three seasons.
This year, the lesser knowns have made just as much an impact as the big name players and these are the five who have done the most.
Scott Darling, Chicago Blackhawks
Darling isn’t starting for the Blackhawks right now, but that might not have even been an option had the Chicago backup not come in to save the day in the first round against the Nashville Predators. No small deal has been made of Darling’s play in Game 1 of the first-round tilt, but that he came back with victories in Games 3 and 4 was just as important.
After his 42-save overtime victory in relief of Corey Crawford in Game 1, Darling got the start in Game 3 after Chicago and Crawford took it on the chin in Game 2. Over his next two outings, Darling turned aside 85 shots in almost 153 minutes, winning both games and giving the Blackhawks a stranglehold on the first round series. Few expected Darling to start a game all post-season, but he got in early and likely saved the first-round series for Chicago.
Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks
During the regular season, Silfverberg logged an average of little more than 15:30 per outing, managed 13 goals and 39 points in 81 games. In the playoffs, though, he has been a terror for the opposition.
While both the Winnipeg Jets in the first round and, now, the Calgary Flames in the second round have focused on shutting down the likes of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, Silfverberg has found himself producing at an incredible pace. Heading into Friday, in seven games this post-season, Silfverberg has scored two goals and seven points, all the while upping his average ice time to 18 minutes.
Silfverberg is making the most of the increased ice time from coach Bruce Boudreau and, as we’ve seen every year, scoring depth in the playoffs can make all the difference between Stanley Cup glory and an early exit from the playoffs.
Joel Ward, Washington Capitals
Not a lot of consideration is given to Ward as one of the most effective depth players in the league, but he’s been consistently productive since entering the NHL full-time in 2008-09. He has struggled at times to find the back of the net, but when he’s been given the ice time in Washington, he’s excelled. With the Capitals hiring former Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, Ward’s first NHL bench boss, it’s no shock he’s back playing some of the best hockey of his career.
Over the past two seasons, Ward has 43 goals and 83 points, but he’s really finding his game in these playoffs with the Capitals. After skating under 17 minutes per game with Washington during the regular season, Ward has gotten good minutes with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom this post-season, and the trio has gelled.
As of Thursday, in 11 playoff games, Ward has two goals and six points, including the shocking Game 1 game-winning goal that lifted the Capitals over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and was the third highest scoring Capital.
Sami Vatanen, Anaheim Ducks
No one for a second doubts the ability of Anaheim’s stars, but come the post-season, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and even Ryan Kesler are supposed to produce. There aren’t many who expected one of the Ducks’ top playoff point-getters to be Vatanen.
Through seven games, Vatanen, who has two goals and seven points, is tied with Silfverberg and Kesler for point production and has been a force on the power play. Averaging more than 2:30 per game on the power play, Vatanen has the third most points of any Duck with the man advantage, behind only Perry and Getzlaf.
A fourth-round selection of Anaheim in 2009, Vatanen only managed one point in five playoff games in 2013-14. This post-season, however, he had eclipsed that total in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets with a one-goal, three-point performance.
Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning
When it comes to depth forwards making an impact for the Lightning, all the talk was about the line of Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson. Well, Johnson has come through, leading Tampa Bay with 10 points, and Palat and Kucherov are holding their own. But the Lightning’s fourth-highest scorer? That’s Killorn.
After a hard-fought first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings in which he racked up two goals and four points, Killorn came up big in Tampa Bay’s big Game 2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens by finding the score sheet with two helpers.
It’s more than his point total that has made him so effective, though. For the entirety of the first and second rounds, Killorn has been playing more even strength minutes than any other forward on the Lightning while also pitching in shorthanded and with the man advantage. Talk about an all around player.
Killorn has even had one of the highest 5-on-5 possession rates of all Tampa Bay players. Outside of defensemen Nikita Nesterov, who has only played six games, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, Killorn has the highest shot attempts for percentage of any Lightning players with 51.5 percent.