April 7, 2011

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NHL Playoffs: Who Are This Year’s Wild Card Players?

By: Dicky Phillips

The Stanley Cup Finals are right around the corner.

It’s time to elevate the noise meter at the rink, raise the roof, and pack the arena so full that fans are hanging from the rafters. The NHL post-season is nearly upon us!  And, if you’re an NHL fan, you know that there is still a lot to be sorted out.

In other major American sports, the championship contenders are a little easier to predict.  In baseball, for instance, you always expect the Red Sox and Yankees to be in the picture. In the NFL, the Patriots, Colts, and Steelers are likely to make a push come Playoff time. And in the NBA, it’s a surprise when the Lakers and Celtics aren’t listed as a possible Finals match-up.

Of course, the NHL has a few teams that consistently stand out.  But, as the Montreal Canadians showed us in the 2010 Playoffs against the Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, seeds mean almost zilch! Nada. Nothing!

Every team has a good chance at advancing when the playoffs finally do arrive, so coaches will expect their teams to be mentally prepared and will look for any sense of momentum to carry them into the first round.  Post-season experience is a huge asset, and good defense (led by strong goal-tending) is a must.

One additional factor that should not be overlooked, however, is the Wild Card Player. If a team is to go deep into the post-season, they will need a star performance from a player that wasn’t necessarily expected to perform like a star.  Look at Dustin Byfuglien’s turn for the Blackhawks last year—the big-bodied, hard hitting utility player had no problem stepping up in the 2010 Playoffs against great defensemen like Chris Pronger.  Or how about Jean-Sebastain Giguere’s play in the 2003 Playoffs for Anaheim?  Yes, he had a pretty good regular season, but no one expected the lights-out performance he brought to the post-season.  Five shutouts?  While they didn’t win the Cup, Giguere led the Ducks right to the brink.

So who will the Wild Card Players be this year?  Here are our predictions:

Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks

Kesler uses his speed and hockey IQ to make sure that he is always in a position to help his team. And he’s having another career year. Led by the Sedin brothers and Luongo in net, the Canucks (with the best record in the NHL) are the favorite of most to win the Cup.  With most opposing teams very aware of what the Sedins are capable of, however, less attention will be given to Kesler, which could prove to be a very costly oversight.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

Old Joe, meet New Joe.  Joe Thornton is having one of the least productive seasons of his career, so someone needs to pick it up.  Joe Pavelski can be that guy.  Prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, many hockey fans had no idea who Pavelski was.  Pavelski, however, had a terrific post-season last year and seems poised to be just as great this year.  The Sharks are heading into the Playoffs as arguably the hottest team in the NHL, and they will need a player like Pavelski to keep them going strong.

The “Energy Line,” Boston Bruins

“Energy Line,” or the fourth line of the Boston Bruins, isn’t just one player, but a few.  For the entire season the Bruins’ fourth line has been able to create momentum for, or maintain the momentum of, the other three lines.  With Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell, and Daniel Paille, the Energy Line has even contributed on the point sheet.  Although sometimes out-skilled, this line more than makes up for it with heart and a fighting will.