Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Patrick Marleau (Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)
The stars carried the load offensively for the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins, but there are a few key players who aren’t getting the credit they deserve as the Stanley Cup final approaches. Here are five unsung heroes who helped make the Sharks and Penguins finalists.
Regardless of the outcome of the Stanley Cup final, Penguins winger Bryan Rust’s Game 7 performance will be remembered in Pittsburgh for years to come.
Rust, a 24-year-old mid-season call up, scored the opening goal in Game 7 and then netted the game-winner on an ugly side of the net jam play shortly after the Tampa Bay Lightning scored the game-tying goal. Those were his fourth and fifth goals of the post-season, and they came two days following his Game 6 insurance goal that sealed that victory for the Penguins.
But because of his Game 7 contributions, Rust isn’t exactly what one would call an unsung hero. Nor is someone like San Jose Sharks winger Joel Ward, who would have been a shoo-in for this list had he not scored four goals in the final two games of the Western Conference final. There are still five players who should be getting more credit, though:
5. Patrick Marleau, LW, San Jose Sharks
This is arguably one of the first times in his career that Marleau hasn’t been a central figure of the San Jose offense, and it has been a good look on the veteran. Through 18 games, he has four goals and 12 points, which puts him only two points off of matching his career post-season high. More than his production, though, Marleau has been a steadying veteran presence.
What’s impressive, too, is that Marleau is still showing the same wheels he had when he was 10 years younger. The 36-year-old has had a few moments where he’s been able to beat defenders one-on-one simply by going to the outside.
If there’s a big goal for the Sharks need in the final, it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking were it Marleau who netted it.
4. Carl Hagelin, LW, Pittsburgh Penguins
The ‘HBK’ line has played well enough to catch the attention of Shawn Michaels, the original HBK, but the part Hagelin has played on the line has gone a bit overlooked. It’s easy to understand why, though, when Phil Kessel is a Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunner and Nick Bonino has a series-winning overtime marker to his name and is tied for second in team scoring with 15 points.
Hagelin is only slightly behind Bonino, however, having notched five goals and 12 points of his own. And while he may not be getting the most credit of anyone on the line, Hagelin’s speed is a big part of the line’s success because it creates problems for defenders. He can keep plays alive, forechecks with speed and he has managed 42 shots on goal. He’s making things happen for Pittsburgh.
3. Joonas Donskoi, RW, San Jose Sharks
An undrafted rookie, Donskoi is in his first season with the Sharks but he’s been impressive. For a rookie playing in the bottom-six, his 11 goals and 36 points were a nice start to his career, but he’s been even better in the post-season. Through 18 games, Donskoi already has nine points, but he’s seen an increase of almost one minute per game in ice time and has scored five times. That’s nearly half of his regular season total in roughly one-quarter of the games.
Donskoi has scored at important times, too. In the first round, Donskoi scored the game-winning goal that sent the Sharks past the Los Angeles Kings, and in the series-deciding game against the St. Louis Blues, Donskoi chipped in with a goal. They say in the post-season you can only go as far as your depth takes you, and Donskoi is helping the Sharks’ depth players make a difference.
2. Brian Dumoulin, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
Trevor Daley’s ankle injury should have seen the Penguins’ defense unravel, if only in the slightest. Instead, Dumoulin’s pairing with Kris Letang helped shoulder the load and pace the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final.
Dumoulin doesn’t have the flare that Letang does, and he’s not as offensively gifted as Daley, but he can move well and he’s got the size to ward off forecheckers and turn the puck up ice. Dumoulin’s playing two minutes per game more than his regular season ice time average, but that hasn’t made him show many cracks. His game isn’t perfect, but he’s making it work as a stay-at-home defender.
1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D, San Jose Sharks
Vlasic doesn’t have the flash of a Brent Burns and he’s not leading the Sharks (and the post-season) in scoring like Logan Couture, but Vlasic is playing more than 23:30 per game, has one goal and 11 points and was an absolute force against the St. Louis Blues in the conference final.
With all the talk of the lack of production from St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko in the third round, it should be noted that Tarasenko was primarily held off the board — until his two-goal Game 6 — because Vlasic was shutting him down. Seriously. More than half of Tarasenko’s time on ice at 5-on-5 in the series was against Vlasic and the Sharks dominated possession to the tune of a 57.1 shot attempts for percentage. With play like that, it’s no wonder Tarasenko couldn’t get on the board.
Vlasic’s defensive prowess has been a game-changer for the Sharks, and he’s a big reason why San Jose is preparing for their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history.