The greatest postseason in all of sports begins Wednesday night as the puck drops to start the NHL playoffs. There is nothing in sports that can match the intensity of a best of seven-series and nowhere does any sport come close to replicating the true sudden death action of a hockey playoff overtime. The season started in October with 30 teams vying for the greatest trophy in all of sports and now after a grueling 82-game season, 16 remain standing. These 16 all have similar goals but will employ significantly different strategies to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. Each team has its own unique identity and playing style that defines them. On each of these teams there is inevitably a player whose style, skill and overall game best represent their team’s style. So I present to you a list of the player on each playoff team that best defines his squad. This list is not each team’s best player or most important, but rather the player who best symbolizes his team’s style of play.
New York Rangers: Ryan Callahan
The Broadway blue shirts have found themselves a perfect match in first-year captain Ryan Callahan. The Rangers, led by Coach John Tortorella, have a defense-first mindset that stresses blocking shots and holds all of its players accountable to do just that. Callahan has excelled in this system- he was third among all forwards with 88 blocked shots- and his example has helped get everyone else to buy in. Like his team, Callahan is a tough, unselfish player who is fantastic on the defensive side of the puck but also has an above-average offense game. He’ll finish every check, kill a penalty but also toe-drag a D-man and beat a goalie top shelf. While the Rangers’ title hopes may rest on the heavily padded shoulders of Henrik Lundqvist, it is Ryan Callahan that best defines them.
Boston Bruins: Milan Lucic
The big bad Boston Bruins are the defending champions and it won’t be easy for anyone to dethrone them. The Bruins are a tough, hard-nosed team that also can light the lamp with the leagues best. They have had an up-and-down year following their title, going through stretches of both complete dominance and relative impotence. Lucic too at times can dominate a game with his rare combination of scoring prowess and toughness, but at times can be ineffective. He is a power forward who can rack up both penalty minutes and points. At their best both Lucic and the Bruins can be almost impossible to stop and if they get on a hot-streak like they did a year ago Lucic and his teammates might be lifting the cup again.
Florida Panthers: Steven Weiss
Southern Florida hasn’t seen playoff hockey in over a decade but this year’s surprise Panthers have managed to win the perennially unimpressive Southeast Division and find themselves with home ice in the first round as the number three-seed. Steven Weiss was a big reason why the Panthers won their division this year with a good solid overall season. But Steven Weiss isn’t a superstar and he isn’t one of the best players in the NHL. And the Panthers aren’t a great team and despite their seed they received for winning a weak-division, they aren’t a top team this year. Both Weiss and the Panthers had exceptional starts to the year, but they tinkered off as the season finished and barely held on to their division title. While a good story and a solid team, don’t expect much from Weiss or the Panthers this post-season.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby
The Penguins, despite being the four-seed, finished with the second-most points in the East and thanks to a strong finish are the bookmaker’s favorite to win it all. So it fits that arguably the game’s best represents them. While likely Hart winner as league MVP, Evgeni Malkin, has carried the Pens this season, their injury-plagued star Sidney Crosby best defines them. The Penguins are one of the best skating and passing teams in the league and scored the most goals this year. Crosby, when healthy, is the best passer in the game and one of its top scorers and shreds through a team’s neutral-zone defense (something the Penguins do the best in the league). Crosby hasn’t been healthy for most of the year but when he is he is extremely dangerous and can be the best player in the league. The same goes for the Penguins who when healthy with both Crosby and Kris Letang running full speed are deserving of being the favorites to win the cup.
Philadelphia Flyers: Scott Hartnell
The Flyers are known to play a tough, hard-working style of hockey and this year is no exception. The Flyers had almost 175 more penalty minutes than any other team, but also managed to have roughly 150 more penalty minutes against than anyone else. It’s possible the men working the Wells Fargo Center penalty-box doors got carpal tunnel from all the action they saw this year. And those men are likely very familiar with the player who recently in a poll conducted by Sports Illustrated was voted by his peers as the player who most needed a haircut, Scott Hartnell. While Hartnell is known for his tough play, just like the Flyers, it was his offense this season that was paramount to making the Flyers a top team. Philadelphia has one of the top offenses in the league led by Claude Giroux and Hartnell, who led the team and was tied for sixth in the league with 37 goals. Despite the goon reputation, it is actually the scoring of Hartnell and the Flyers that make them one of the league’s best and a threat to go far this post-season if they can take down the Penguins in what should be the best first round series.
New Jersey Devils: Zack Parise
After missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 1995, the Devils return with a slightly altered style this season. The Devils are still very sound defensively, but they are much more offensively-oriented than the classic Devil teams of the late 90’s and beginning of the 00’s. They aren’t particularly dynamic offensively as a whole or incredibly impressive defensively, but they are very sound overall. Parise fits this description seamlessly. He is a top offensive player but is also a sound defensive player. He isn’t overly flashy, but he can be among the league’s best at times and so too can the Devils.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Semin
The last couple years the Washington Capitals have been a big disappointment in the playoffs. They haven’t made it past the second round while losing to a lower-seeded team in each of the past four playoffs. This year they decided not to wait for the playoffs and to disappoint and underperform in the regular season instead. They are an extremely skilled team, yet wildly underachieved for most of the year and have proven to be no-shows in the playoffs. Such too is the case with Alexander Semin. One of the most skilled players in the league he managed only 54 points this season when he’s shown to be capable of being among the league leaders. Both Semin and the Capitals do have a ton of skill and could potentially be dangerous if they only were to show up for once in the playoffs and play to their potential.
Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson
Coming into the season most experts predicted that the Senators would be on the golf course by this time, but a surprising effort and a strong offense has propelled them into the playoffs. Expectations also were relatively low for possible Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. While an up-and-coming skilled defenseman, no one could have foreseen him leading all defenseman in scoring by a staggering margin of 25 points. However, ironically despite being a defenseman Karlsson’s biggest weakness is actually his defense and so too is the case for the Senators. They allowed the most goals out of all the playoff teams and while Craig Anderson has shown occasional streaks of being a top goaltender, overall he is flawed and hasn’t put up great numbers. The Senators and Karlsson are a great story and possess a strong offense, but they both lack the defense to go far this postseason.
As far as predictions go I’ll take Ryan Callahan and the Rangers beating Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the Conference Finals. My column on the Western Conference and Finals predictions will be up soon.