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.
In a must win game for the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul George was finally able to look like the best player on the floor in a playoff game.
After a slow start, George poured it on in the second half on his way to a game high 41 points in Game 5. The performance elevated the Clippers over strong outings from the likes of Devin Booker and Chris Paul as L.A. outlasted Phoenix 116-102.
The Clippers don't have much time to bask in their win however as they have to turn around and play two more elimination games just to make it out of the West. The Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead as Los Angeles struggled to find their identity without Kawhi Leonard. If the Clippers are to stave off elimination any longer, George has to continue this level of play.
It should also be stated that Reggie Jackson has been really good for Los Angeles throughout the playoffs and is someone that the team leans on to take and make tough shots in crunch time. His fearlessness attacking the rim provides a lot of space for his teammates.
Reggie Jackson after getting his free agency bag this summer https://t.co/kgR7AUeQZ5— Josiah Johnson (@Josiah Johnson)1624936925.0
The Suns have dropped two of the last three games, and their win came in Game 4 which saw a final tally of 84-80 so it's tough to gauge how much stock to take in that victory. What I'm trying to say is the Clippers have definitely looked the part of a Western Conference Champion the past three games, and the Suns are at risk of flaming out.
Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac (MCL sprain) will not play tonight in Game 5 of the WCF against the Phoenix Suns.— Chris Haynes (@Chris Haynes)1624923130.0
The Clippers' starting big man, Ivica Zubac, was out with a knee injury while Los Angeles out scored the Suns by 26 in the paint. So far in every game but one (Game 3 when L.A. beat Phoenix 106-92) the team that has scored the most points in the paint has ended up winning. Both teams are good from the free throw line and it gets the opposition into foul trouble so it is a sound strategy for either side. But Deandre Ayton wasn't able to get much going offensively in Game 5 finishing with only 10 points in 37 minutes.
For the Suns, they were quick to point out their own shortcomings following the loss. Coach Monty Williams noted, "It's just unacceptable the way we started the game," he continued on to compare the Suns and Clippers in Game 5, "We showed up in the first quarter, and they played with desperation."
Monty Williams: “Leadership is tricky - if you can’t get people to follow you, you’re just walking by yourself”— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel Nichols)1624922492.0
Chris Paul who had 22 points and eight assists talked about Phoenix's inability to hold onto advantages, "We've got to close quarters better," Paul goes on to say, "that's been a problem for us all series long."
Paul has been a leader both on and off the court helping this young team to play far above the level anyone expected them to this season, but he's also been a part of many teams that fell short in the playoffs.
A championship run is the one knock on his hall of fame resume, and it seemed destined to happen this year especially after the Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. But he isn't the only player who has had their reputation affected by playoff performances.
The nickname Playoff P isn't an endearing one. It has become synonymous with Paul George and his failures in the postseason up to this point. Any success that the Clippers were going to have this year was always likely to be attributed to Kawhi Leonard, but now that he is sidelined it's all on PG to carry the load.
George entered rarified air Monday night joining the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant as players who scored 20 or more points in each of the first 18 games in a postseason. All of their teams reached the Finals. George is hoping to follow suit as the Clippers are headed back home to host Game 6.
Following a Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Philadelphia 76ers and coach, Doc Rivers, are questioning if Ben Simmons is the right guy to be running their offense through moving forward.
Offense being the key word here.
Simmons is an all-world defender possessing the ability to guard virtually any opponent on the court from the perimeter to the rim. But it was his lack of offensive help throughout this playoff season that stood out beyond any accomplishments this year. Simmons joined Rudy Gobert as unanimous selections for the NBA's All-Defensive First Team this year and also finished fifth in the NBA in assists per game with 8.8 per contest.
For a player that relies so heavily on driving to the basket to get shots off close to the hoop, it's expected for that player to draw plenty of contact resulting in a lot of free throw opportunities. That was certainly indicative of what we saw from Simmons in the first two rounds of the 20-21 playoffs.
He got to the line 45 times against the Hawks in their second round matchup, but only converted 15 freebies which equates to a 33% free throw percentage in the series. Simmons shot just 34.2% from the stripe if you include their first round games against the Wizards, which accounts for the worst free throw percentage by a player with at least 70 attempts in a postseason in NBA playoff history.
With a minimum of 70 attempts, Ben Simmons' 34.2% free throw percentage this postseason is the worst in a postseaso… https://t.co/EvEcQxEe8m— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPN Stats & Info)1624244835.0
In the four games that Atlanta beat Philly in this series, they lost by a combined 17 points. If Ben Simmons shoots just 70% from the line and makes 31-45 during this series, that adds 16 to Philadelphia's series point total. Obviously, the attempts might not directly impact the losses, but from a very broad overview, it would draw the series significantly closer — especially taking into account that three of the four losses the 76ers took in the series were lost by four points or fewer.
Also let's not allow people to say that the free throw stat is overblown and out of context. It's not. Shaquille O'Neal, who is notoriously one of the worst free throw shooters in league history, still managed a career playoff free throw percentage of 50%. That's why we saw the conception of "Hack-a-Shaq" where teams would intentionally foul O'Neal to put him on the line rather than allowing him to hurt them in other ways.
We've begun to see teams adopt this practice now with Simmons, which is just flat out embarrassing for a player of Simmons' pedigree. We have seen what he's able to do with the ball. He flies down the court on fast breaks, is a brilliant creator for teammates, and is one of the better finishers at the rim that we have in the league today.
We've already touched on his defensive prowess that has elevated him to becoming NBA All-Defense multiple times and a three time All-Star. But what do the Sixers do with Simmons before next season?
The 24-year-old point-forward still has plenty of time to work on his game. We've seen other players add a jumper later in their careers to great success; just ask Vince Carter how that works. But, usually, in order to develop a perimeter shot, there is at least a solid foundation to build on — that being the ability to consistently hit free throws.
Simmons is a career 60% free throw shooter, and he shot right around the mean during the regular season. The decline in made shots from the charity stripe in this postseason is cause for concern that this isn't the beginning of a trend.
Add to that Simmons' reluctance to take shots further away from the basket, and defenses have the luxury of ignoring Simmons in the half court set. We have seen teams (like the Jazz and 76ers) that rely heavily on the pick and roll get shut down in these playoffs, and it's teams like Atlanta and Phoenix that are able to spread defenses thin by putting multiple shooters on the court at one time succeed.
In 34 career playoff games, Ben Simmons has made 5 shots outside of 10 feet (from the basket).— Paul Hembekides (@Paul Hembekides)1624277710.0
Joel Embiid was phenomenal in the postseason, so let's not ignore that fact. Also, he was playing on one knee and still almost willed the Sixers to a win. But again, Embiid was not 100% in the playoffs, which limited his abilities.
Doc Rivers answers a question whether Ben Simmons can be the point guard of a championship team https://t.co/8xL35u98RC— Rob Perez (@Rob Perez)1624244460.0
Following their loss, Doc Rivers was asked if he thought Ben Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team, to which he responded, "I don't know that answer to that question right now," which doesn't provide a whole lot of confidence in Simmons' status with the team next year. Trade rumors have already begun to circulate, and it would make sense for this Philly team to hit the reset button now.
If Simmons continues to be exploitable in big moments, as we've seen him be so far in his career, his value is only going to go down. Adding further complications into the situation is the team just agreed to a new contract extension with Simmons and is due to make between $33 and $40 million per season over the next four years.
As the two cornerstone pieces of The Process appear to be two Scotties without a Mike, the early departure for the East's top seed will likely mean a big shakeup in the near future. If Embiid is healthy, he is elite without question. Maybe Philadelphia will go out and add around their two stars, but unless the organization is confident that Simmons can avoid another atrocious offensive performance in future playoff series, all they have is a really good regular season team.
The Phoenix Suns are just a win away from sending LeBron James home in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the King's illustrious career.
After stating that "These shoulders were built for a reason," James referring to facing the challenge of taking on added responsibilities after Anthony Davis was ruled out for Game 5, the Lakers and LeBron disappointed in a big way Tuesday night. L.A. started off hot jumping out to a 10-5 lead behind a couple shots from James and a three from Davis' replacement Markieff Morris. But it didn't take long for the wheels to completely fall off for the defending champion Lakers as they spent most of the first half trying to remember how basketball works.
LeBron looking on during Game 5Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Two numbers stick out in the Game 5 loss for the Lakers and those are 34.5 and 12. Los Angeles shot 34.5% from the field on Tuesday night and were minus 12 in turnover ratio. No matter who's on your team, if you can't shoot and you can't protect the ball, the outcome is already determined.
The Suns weren't simply beneficiaries of a poor performance however as the Suns put it on the Lakers early and often and they never let their foot off the pedal for 48 minutes. Phoenix ended with 15 more assists, had seven more combined steals and blocks, and outscored L.A. in the paint by 12 points. Devin Booker and Cameron Payne were spectacular and they seemed to hit big shots every time the Lakers appeared to threaten a comeback. Mikal Bridges was effective on both sides of the ball adding three steals and two blocks to help electrify his team with the defensive effort.
🗣 DEVIN BOOKER— Phoenix Suns (@Phoenix Suns)1622601795.0
The idea of effort is something that was lacking on the purple and gold side last night though. It didn't take long after Booker started hitting everything that the Lakers team started playing sloppy and launching up bad threes in a failed attempt to not let the game get out of hand. Well it did.
The two teams were among the best defensive teams in league this season, the Suns finished seventh in overall team defensive rating and the Lakers first. The Lakers typically like to use their defensive prowess to control pace and work in the half court with their combination of speed on the wings and their combination of big men down low that includes Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis (when healthy), and former Sixth-Man of the Year winner Montrezl Harrell. Incase you forgot Harrell does in fact still play for the Lakers, but before last night if you blinked for too long you would've missed him on the court.
WHY ISN’T MONTREZL HARRELL GETTING PLAYING TIME?????@MONSTATREZZ #FreeMontrezl https://t.co/j55u9zg9kN— NBALakersReport (@NBALakersReport)1622603465.0
For some unknown reason Trez has been an afterthought in Frank Vogel's rotations, not only in this series, but throughout parts of the regular season. With AD being ruled out for Game 5, it would've been logical to think that we'd see an uptick in minutes for the high energy reserve, and we did. But not until the game was far out of hand in the second half. While the Suns were building a 30 point lead we saw Phoenix's guards cooking the slower big men of the Lakers off pick and rolls.
30 points is the largest lead at half in Suns playoff history. 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/UoozhMf6Io— Phoenix Suns (@Phoenix Suns)1622604230.0
It's understandable to want some size to limit Deandre Ayton, but when it's Booker, Payne, and Bridges hurting you offensively why not see how a quicker and more agile defender like Harrell might fare slowing down the pick and rolls? We saw Jae Crowder having success doing that on the other side for the Suns all night!
It's not fair to just talk about how bad the Lakers were, in fairness it looked like they were getting open looks and were just collectively having an unlucky shooting night. Maybe they all got it out of their system now? But the Suns would have beat anyone on that home court last night. Let's give all credit to them by playing one of the best games ever seen against a LeBron James-led playoff team. Devin Booker is an absolute star and this team plays with a very focused chip on their shoulder which has been manicured by Chris Paul. His leadership has made ALL the difference for this Phoenix team and it can be seen most on the defensive side of the ball. The Suns players have adopted Paul's attitude and intensity on that end and it all paid off last night.
We've seen LeBron actively frustrated during playoff games on the court, and last night is one of the most cringe-worthy to have seen. James spent way too much time talking to officials about calls, and not just between whistles. It would be interesting to know how many possessions the Lakers played four on five because James never made it back on defense before the Suns put more points on them. LeBron was seen leaving the court with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and sure it could be to start receiving treatment on the injured ankle. But we know the real reason he left. We can only hope he didn't punch anything on the way to the locker room.
While the teams will travel back to L.A. for Game 6, the Lakers know they are in a must-win situation. We saw the rest of the team around LeBron scrambling because they felt the pressure. James was the only Laker in the second half that kept the team functioning. When we've seen a visibly dejected James like we did last night, it's been because he knew his team didn't have it. I don't think that's the case with this Lakers team.
There's plenty of talent on the roster even without Anthony Davis. Maybe Game 6 is when we get to see Harrell getting some meaningful minutes. Maybe Vogel can devise a way to get Andre Drummond more involved offensively. Maybe AD plays and isn't slowed by the groin injury. Or maybe you should've listened to us back in January when we told you the Suns were a pretty good basketball team.