Unsung Heroes Key to Lord Stanley's Mug
Two rounds are in the books as we march along through this years playoffs. From a fan's perspective there isn't much more we could ask for from the NHL's elite as the last month has been remarkable to say the least.
Two historic comebacks - or meltdowns depending on your viewpoint - were halted at the last moment, a first round marred by suspensions and non-suspensions, goaltending controversies aplenty and a plethora of heart stopping overtime action is the Coles Notes version of the first two rounds. Not too bad so far, eh?
Last night the San Jose Sharks joined this years Vancouver Canucks by narrowly avoiding going down in the annals of hockey history as only the fourth team to let a 3 - 0 series lead slip away. In fitting fashion the 'gutless' Patrick Marleau, as anointed by Jeremy Roenick, potted the series winner lifting the Sharks to the Conference Finals for the second consecutive year.
This got me thinking about great playoff performers and performances and what it actually takes for a team to endure a long and arduous playoff run and play for the Stanley Cup. Players like Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Zetterberg (the previous 3 Conn Smythe winners) have etched their legacies into hockey history with their clutch play and vast accomplishments. But how different would the story be without the unsung heroes alongside these superstars?
The Stanley Cup playoffs bring out the best, and sometimes the worst, in various players and teams. Stars are born on this grand stage as each year we see the heroic emergence of a relative unknown who helps facilitate their team's playoff success.
Blackhawks fans witnessed the 'huge' (forgive the pun) impact that 6'5, 265 lb Dustin Byfuglien had last season as he scored 11 goals, including 5 game winners, and had 16 points en route to the Hawks Stanley Cup win. Two years prior Red Wings fans watched as Johan 'the mule' Franzen, coming off a 38 point campaign, had 13 goals and 5 game winners to help the Wings win the Cup in the '07-'08 season. These two were integral parts of each Stanley Cup run but as time goes by tend to get slightly lost in the mix.
Just to further my point, does anyone remember the show Fernando Pisani put on during the Oilers '05-'06 Stanley Cup run. Albeit in a losing effort, Pisani's career high in points is 38, yet he sniped 14 goals, 5 of them being game winners (seems like a trend doesn't it) and had 18 points as the Oilers fell in 7 games to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup. I understand to the victor go the spoils, but short of winning the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe that year Pisani wasn't going to be remembered within a few years.
To bring this full circle I wanted to take a look at who has the inside track at becoming this years 'unsung hero'. We still have lots of hockey left but there definitely are a few candidates making a case for themselves.
1. Sean Bergenheim - Another one of Steve Yzerman's gems that seem to be kicking it up a notch at the right time making Yzerman look like a genius. Bergenheim amassed a career high 29 points this year and has never scored more than 15 goals in an NHL season. Thus far in the playoffs the young Finn has 7 goals in 11 games for the Lightning and has provided a definitive secondary scoring punch.
2. Steve Downie - The other Lightning in the mix happens to be Bergenheim's linemate. The talented Downie has never been able to put it all together and has been labelled a 'dirty player' by many in the hockey world which was front and centre with his 1 game suspension in the first round. However, after putting up a mere 32 points this year Downie boasts 10 assists and 12 points while having a plus 9 rating in the playoffs.
3. Brad Marchand - The 23 year old is second to Patrice Bergeron in playoff scoring for the Bruins with 11 points in his first playoff campaign. Marchand's production has been integral as leading scorer in the regular season Milan Lucic and powerhouse Zdeno Chara both lay dormant for most of the first and second rounds.
4. Joel Ward - This is more of an honourable mention than anything else, but Ward's timely production on an offensively challenged Predators team put a scare into Canuck fans. Ward, who boasted a whopping 10 goals and 29 points in 80 games this season, netted 7 goals and 13 points through the Preds 12 playoff games.
There are several players that could probably make this list right now and several more that will throw their name into the mix as the next two rounds play out, but these 3, well 4 I guess, appear to be at the top. The unsung hero is eventually a thankless label as it usually takes a backseat to the Conn Smythe winning superstar, but it nonetheless is just as fundamental to a deep playoff run.
A Stanley Cup run is truly a team effort and is epitomized not only by a teams star power (as Washington has found out), but by their ability to play like a team and create new stars, if only for one playoff season. True Cup winning teams are remembered for their superstars, but defined by their supporting cast. The title of unsung hero may not come with a trophy or a medal, but it usually comes with a Cup.