Matt Murray Image by: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
Ahead of the opening day of the post-season, we take a look at the 16 players who could make or break the playoff runs for each team competing for the Stanley Cup.
In the lead-up to Wednesday’s post-season kickoff, we took a look at the players who could blast, block or stop their way to Conn Smythe Trophy glory, but one MVP-caliber performance is never enough for a team to capture the Stanley Cup. So, with that in mind, here are the players whose playoff performances could be the ultimate x-factors and make or break the upcoming post-season for each of the 16 Stanley Cup contenders:
ANAHEIM DUCKS: The Ducks have their share of weapons with Rickard Rakell and Ryan Getzlaf serving as the 1-2 punch up front that will guide Anaheim’s offense, but if there was ever a time for Ondrej Kase to have his breakout, it’d be now. Kase wasn’t heavily utilized in the regular season, averaging less than 14 minutes per outing, but the sophomore winger still managed to net 20 goals and 38 points, with all but three of his points coming at even strength. If he escapes the top defensive pairings, he could be a useful weapon for the Ducks.
BOSTON BRUINS: Charlie McAvoy has already seen playoff action, averaging 26 minutes across six games during last year’s first-round meeting between Boston and Ottawa. After his rookie campaign, though, it’s evident that McAvoy has the type of potential that can make or break a playoff run. If he plays as he did through the regular season, which is to say like a blossoming No. 1, potential Norris Trophy-contending defenseman, he could take over a series from the back end. If he stumbles or hesitates in his second go-round against top competition in the playoffs, Boston may need to shuffle their blueline and cut into McAvoy’s minutes.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: All eyes are on Nathan MacKinnon. Mikko Rantanen, despite flying under the radar during the regular season, is going to have the spotlight shone directly on him. But the true x-factor for the Avalanche is going to be Jonathan Bernier, who will be tasked with starting duty after Semyon Varlamov fell injured and was made unavailable for at least the first round. Bernier can get the job done, no doubt, and he can even get hot enough to steal a series. Take the 14-game stretch through January and into February across which he posted an 11-2-1 record and .941 save percentage. But Bernier also closed out the season with a 3-4-1 record and .892 SP across his final 10 games.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Sergei Bobrovsky will almost certainly act as the cornerstones of any run the Blue Jackets piece together. But if Columbus is going to make any noise in the post-season, it’s going to be up to rookie Pierre Luc-Dubois to prove he can carry his second half of the regular season into the playoffs. After starting slow, Dubois found his way onto the top line and proved himself a more than capable two-way, top-line pivot. He scored 14 goals and 34 points over his final 50 games and averaged upwards of 18 minutes per night. If that’s the Dubois the Blue Jackets get in the post-season, he can be a difference-maker in a seven-game series.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Jonathan Quick had a tremendous season, but the playoffs can be a different animal. We’ve seen two versions of Quick throughout his career when the post-season rolls around. The first is the unbeatable Gumby-esque goaltender who contorts his body to stop pucks he should have no business stopping. That’s the Quick that won the Conn Smythe Trophy with a .946 SP in 2011-12 and the Quick who posted a .934 SP across 18 outings the next post-season. The other Quick is the one who posted a modest .906 SP across his next 31 playoff games — though he did win another Cup with a mere .911 SP. But Quick’s play can, and quite likely will, determine how far Los Angeles goes.
MINNESOTA WILD: Eric Staal may seem out of place on a list of playoff x-factors, particularly given he’s fresh off of a 42-goal, 76-point campaign, but recent history tells a different story about Staal’s performance in the playoffs. Early in his career with the Hurricanes, Staal’s performance was phenomenal as he scored 19 goals and 43 points in 43 games. Staal’s past two trips to the playoffs, however, have been completely forgettable. First came the 2015-16 trip which followed his blockbuster acquisition by the New York Rangers. Staal failed to find the scoresheet in five games. Then, last season, Staal made another five-game trip to the playoffs only to register a single assist before the Wild bowed out.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The fun answer is Eeli Tolvanen, but the reality is the rookie winger has come over just ahead of the post-season as nothing more than a bit player in a deep Predators lineup. A better answer is Kyle Turris, who could turn out to be exactly the piece Nashville needed to get over the top. Turris was brought in to offer the Predators more depth down the middle and he did exactly that during the regular season, though he did stumble somewhat down the stretch. Turris can do a bit of everything for Nashville, though, and his versatility could be as important as his scoring touch.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: One has to wonder how Nico Hischier will adjust to the increased physicality of post-season hockey. The rookie pivot did well in his freshman season and finished second on the Devils in scoring with 20 goals and 52 points, and New Jersey’s best hope at advancing past Tampa Bay is with Hischier firing on all cylinders. It will be difficult to get by the Lightning if the Devils remain a one-man team — that one man being Taylor Hall — so Hischier’s play in the post-season could be of paramount importance.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: All eyes are on Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier after the trio paced the Flyers’ offense with at least 75 points apiece, but those tuning in to watch Philadelphia’s battle against rival Pittsburgh shouldn’t be surprised if Travis Konecny makes his presence felt. The sophomore moved up to the top line about midway through the campaign and his game exploded as he went on to finish the season with 24 goals and 47 points. He offers Philadelphia the necessary secondary offense to be a game-changer. That said, he’s untested and the hope is he doesn’t fall back into his early season slump at the most inopportune time.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Surely there will be no Penguins fans upset if we name Matt Murray as an x-factor as Pittsburgh gets set to begin its chase of a three-peat. Murray’s playoff numbers speak for themselves over the past two seasons, as he’s posted a .928 SP and four shutouts in 32 games. That’s the good side of Murray. The bad, however, is that a difficult first campaign as a full-time starter saw him post a .907 SP and he finished the season on an eight-game run in which he managed a subpar .898 SP. No one is doubting Murray’s ability to get the job done, but there are more questions this time around.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Can we name Evander Kane as both a potential Conn Smythe Trophy candidate and an x-factor? No one knows how Kane will perform in the post-season yet because he has played nearly 600 games in the NHL without seeing even a single minute of playoff action. That ends this week, though, as Kane gets his first taste of the post-season. If he performs as we expect he can — with speed, skill, physicality and an edge to his game — he could be unstoppable. If he succumbs to the pressure of finally seeing the playoffs, though, it might be a different story.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: There’s a boatload of offensive talent in Tampa Bay, too many weapons for most teams to contain, but the x-factor isn’t a top-line talent or secondary scorer. Rather, it’s Ondrej Palat, who will no doubt chip in to help the offense but will stand out most for his play against the opposition’s top talent. As a winger, Palat doesn’t get near the credit he deserves for his two-way ability, but shutdown players can make or break a series. Palat’s defensive responsibility can neutralize the opposition’s top talents and allow the Lightning’s stars to go to work.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Some are of the belief that if anything is going to hold the Maple Leafs back in the post-season, it’s going to be the play of their blueliners. Tasked to pick one defender, though, we’ll go with Morgan Rielly. Rielly logged big minutes, inching towards 22 per night, during the regular season and consistently played against the other team’s top line. He’s going to be asked to basically shadow the opponent’s best players in the post-season, too, and shutting down the opposing offense is going to be key to Toronto’s success. The Maple Leafs can score. No one doubts that. The question now is if they can defend well enough to go deep.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: Marc-Andre Fleury was excellent during the regular season and put together what was almost inarguably the best campaign of his career. The problem, though, is that Fleury is no stranger to post-season stumbles. Of his 115 playoff appearances, he has posted a .900 SP or lower on 49 occasions, which helps explain his career .908 SP in the post-season. The good news is that the last time Fleury was tasked with starting duty in the playoffs for a long stretch, he went 9-6 with a .924 SP, helping guide the Penguins to the conference final en route to a Stanley Cup victory.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Secondary scoring matters in the playoffs. It matters a lot. So, while Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are sure to lead the offense, the Capitals are going to need someone to down the lineup to contribute. How about Andre Burakovsky? Washington has been waiting for him to really turn it on, and he could make up for a disappointing regular season with a big playoff performance. He has oodles of skill and he has the size and strength we often associate with post-season hockey. He’s not the first guy who comes to mind in the Capitals lineup, but there’s no reason he can’t step up.
WINNIPEG JETS: No one is going to question the Jets’ ability to score and few would question the depth Winnipeg possesses on the blueline, so it feels like the only thing that can change the Jets’ playoff trajectory is the play of Connor Hellebuyck. Winnipeg’s No. 1 netminder was excellent this season and bounced back from his sophomore struggles with aplomb. He’s never seen the playoffs before and he’ll be facing a new level of pressure. If Hellebuyck plays like he has all season, Winnipeg is going to make a deep run. Should he stumble, though, the Jets will need every ounce of offense to get out of the Central.
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