Top 8 Key Players to the NHL's Eastern Conference
With the qualifying and round robin round play of the Stanley Cup playoffs having been completed, now we have moved on to the NHL Playoff format that we are all familiar with.
24 teams started play in Toronto and Edmonton, but eight teams have already been sent packing, including the two teams who call the bubble cities home.
What makes the NHL playoffs such an exciting tournament is how one player can have such a huge impact on the game: a goaltender getting hot and turning into a brick, a forward scoring with seemingly every shot he puts on net, or a defenseman who is shutting down the key offensive threats of his opponents. One player finding his groove at the right time could be the difference between a team advancing in the playoffs or heading home.
So who are the most important players left in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs? We'll identify the most important player on each of the eight teams left in the Eastern Conference.
Shayne Gostisbehere - D
Just a few years ago nobody thought Shayne Gostisbehere would be where is now. Gostisbehere scored 17 goals in the 2015-16 season, finishing as runner-up in Calder Memorial Trophy voting, which is awarded annually to the NHL Rookie of the Year. The defenseman went on to score 13 goals in the 2017-18 season, but in the two years since Gostisbehere has only scored 14 goals for the Flyers.
There was talk of trading Gostisbehere before the trade deadline, but the defenseman has had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, which made teams hesitant to pull the trigger on bringing him. It looks like Philadelphia will benefit from their patience with Gostisbehere, as he is now healthy for the playoff run. Gostisbehere notched two assists in the only round robin game he played in, which was a win over Tampa Bay.
The Flyers are loaded on offense and defense, so it's not like they need Gostisbehere to be a top-line defenseman. But, his presence will do wonders as adds to the tremendous depth that has helped Philadelphia to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. If Gostisbehere returns to the form he showed earlier in his career, it will be extremely tough to bounce the Flyers from the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov - RW
Last year's playoffs were a nightmare for Tampa Bay, as the Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. A major reason for the meltdown by the Presidents Trophy winners was the disappearance of Nikita Kucherov, the league's MVP last season. Kucherov tallied just two assists and was suspended for Game 3 after boarding Markus Nutivaara in Game 2.
The Lightning again have drawn the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, but they are already found more success than last year. Tampa Bay won Game 1 3-2 in quintuple overtime, with Kucherov notching two assists in the victory. Prior to last year's playoff dud, Kucherov had scored 29 goals in 62 playoff games, so there's no question he can produce when the spotlight is on. With Kucherov engaged and creating scoring opportunities, it's going to be hard for the Lightning to be beaten four times in a seven-game series.
Braden Holtby - G
Washington Capitals G Braden Holtby Nick Wass/AP/Shutterstock
It would be easy to tag Alex Ovechkin as the most important player on the Washington Capitals, but the Capitals will need one player to step up even more this year. Goaltender Braden Holtby has had a rough go of it since leading Washington to the Stanley Cup two years ago. The goalie has averaged three goals per game allowed in each of the last two years, which just isn't going to cut it in the playoffs.
Holtby has shown some promise early in these playoffs at least, with his goals against average below two after two round robin games. The goaltending position got a little more complicated for the Capitals during the shutdown, as backup Ilya Samsonov was injured in an off-ice incident in Russia. That leaves rookie Vitek Vanecek as the backup, which means the Capitals likely won't pull Holtby if he is struggling, unless absolutely necessary.
Travis Pastrnak - RW
Boston Bruins RW David PastrnakMaddie Meyer - Getty Images
The only thing that has slowed David Pastrnak down this year has been the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 70 games this year, Pastrnak potted 48 goals and dished out 47 assists, but he somehow wasn't named as finalist for this season's NHL MVP. Pastrnak certainly has something to prove, especially after two of the three MVP finalists have already been bounced from the playoffs.
The Bruins really struggled in the round robin, losing all three games to drop them to the fourth seed after finishing the regular season with the highest point total. It's no coincidence that Pastrnak didn't record a point in any of the three round robin games. Pastrnak has already started off Round 1 with a bang, recording a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win in overtime over the Carolina Hurricanes. If Boston wants to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, they'll need Pastrnak to channel his regular season form.
Dougie Hamilton - D
The Hurricanes took a serious hit in January when Dougie Hamilton suffered a broken leg. At the time many thought Hamilton's season was over, but we also had no idea how hard the COVID-19 pandemic would hit this country, pausing the NHL season for four months. Prior to the injury, Hamilton had scored 14 goals and was credited with 26 assists in 47 games.
Hamilton was able to return to the ice for Game 1 of Carolina's series against Boston, logging nearly 27 minutes of ice time in the double overtime loss. While Carolina does have a solid group of defenseman with guys like Jaccob Slavin and Jake Gardiner, they don't provide the same type of offensive skills that Hamilton does. If Hamilton is able to return to form quickly, the Hurricanes will push the team that swept them in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
New York Islanders
Adam Pelech - D
Much like Carolina, the New York Islanders have an injured defenseman returning who could make all the difference. In early January it was announced that Adam Pelech would miss the rest of the season due to an achilles injury. Luckily for Pelech the playoffs were delayed until August, allowing him extra time to recover.
Prior to Pelech getting injured, the Islanders were 28-11-3. Once Pelech as sidelined, the Islanders were just 10-13-7, and 0-3-4 in the seven games prior to the league shutdown. Had action not have been paused, the Islanders likely would have missed the playoffs.
The return of Pelech couldn't have come at a better time, as he'll be helping to try and slow down Alex Ovechkin and the potent Washington attack. Now that Pelech is bak to pair with Ryan Pulock and steady the blue line of the Islanders, New York has a lot better shot to upset the Capitals and move on in the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones - D
Columbus Blue Jackets D Seth JonesAaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports
The third, and final, returning defenseman on this list is Seth Jones. The seventh-year pro took a puck to the ankle in a game against Colorado in early February, resulting in a fractured ankle. Including the game Jones was injured in, Columbus lost seven straight games and won just three of their final 15 contests before the NHL shutdown.
The impact of Jones (when he is healthy) is immeasurable. In the five overtime thriller against Tampa Bay in Game 1, Jones was on the ice for 65 minutes. Jones gives the Blue Jackets a sense of calm on defense, something that was obviously missing when he was injured in February. Columbus can now field one of the best defensive combinations in the NHL, with 20-goal scorer Zach Werenski pairing with Jones on the blue line.
Carey Price - G
If Montreal is going to have any shot of taking down the top-ranked Philadelphia Flyers, they'll need goaltender Carey Price to stand on his head. Price and the Canadiens have already taken down one team from Pennsylvania this year, as Montreal defeated Pittsburgh in four games in the qualifying round, with Price allowing just 1.67 goals per game and saving nearly 95% of the shots Pittsburgh took in the series.
With the Canadiens being rather limited on offense, they'll desperately need Price to stand tall and keep them in the game. Having to carry the load isn't anything new for Price though, as he has led the NHL in minutes played in each of the last two years. While Philadelphia has a solid offense, with nine players scoring at least 10 goals this season, Price has shown before that he can take over a series and will his team to victory.