The NHL playoffs are a chance for the league to shine a spotlight on its star players on a national stage. That means tons of pre-game highlights of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Chicago’s Johnathan Toews , Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov.
But what about the role players and second fiddles? Here are five players who should get more attention than they do:
Marcus Kruger, Chicago Blackhawks
The top six of Chicago get all the glory, but it is the fourth line, led by Marcus Kruger, that makes it all happen.
Kruger took over half of his faceoffs in the defensive zone, freeing up the more skilled forwards to make their starts in the offensive zone, closer to the net. He won 52.9 percent of them, which helped tilt the ice in Chicago’s favor. Ignoring special teams and lead-protecting situations, the Blackhwaks outshot opponents 264 to 218 with Kruger on the ice.
Add in eight goals, 20 assists and 2:33 per game with the penalty kill and you have one of the most underrated players in the game.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose Sharks
Vlasic got more visibility during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi when he partnered with the Kings’ Drew Doughty on defense for Olympic-champion Team Canada, but with the gold medal in the rear-view mirror, he is once again largely unknown outside of San Jose.
“Pickles” skates over 20 minutes a night and, along with Justin Braun, led the Sharks’ penalty kill in time on ice per game (2:11) during the regular season. However, Vlasic still showed some offensive pop with five goals and 19 assists in 80 games. Plus, despite matching up against the opposition’s best forwards the entire game, he still managed to help San Jose outshoot opponents 910 to 727 during all strengths of play.
Vlasic was also named the first star in San Jose’s victory over Los Angeles in Game 1 after registering a goal and an assist in 18:50 minutes of play.
Johnny Boychuk, Boston Bruins
It is easy to get lost in Zdeno Chara’s shadow. For one, he is 6-foot-9 (without skates) and weighs 255 pounds. Second, he is a former Norris Trophy winner. But make no mistake: Boychuk is an important part of the Boston blueline.
The 30-year-old defenseman was credited with 158 hits and 151 blocked shots while skating over 21 minutes per game, including 2:54 with the penalty kill. In two playoff games this season he has been on the ice for 10 shots for and just seven against. Plus, he made his most frequent blueline pairings better during the regular season.
Ryan O’Reilly, Colorado Avalanche
The 23-year-old led the Avalanche in goals (28) and power-play points (22). O’Reilly also led the team lead in power-play goals (nine) and power-play assists (13). He was second on the team with 64 points overall. But where O’Reilly truly excelled was staying out of the penalty box.
O’Reilly was whistled for just one minor penalty all season (80 games played) but drew 16, giving the Avalanche a tremendous advantage on special teams.
Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers
Sometimes it takes a change of scenery to have a breakout season. Sometimes it just takes a new coach. Zuccarello appears to be blossoming under coach Alain Vigneault, racking up career-highs in goals (19), assists (40) and points (59). In the first two playoff games against Philadelphia Zuccarello has a goal and an assist in 15:48 of play.
Zuccarello also helped drive puck possession and was on the ice for a plus-76 even-strength shot attempt differential during the regular season.
Think I missed someone? Let me know in the comments below.