8 Players You Will Know And Respect After The Stanley Cup Playoffs
No sport combines strength with skill, or power with grace, like hockey does.
No postseason combines intestinal fortitude with high drama, or endless sacrifice with fortune, like the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Legends cement their legacies in the pursuit of the oldest prize in North American team sports.
Yet, there are places in the sun for those whose devotion to the game often surpasses their innate talent, and who rise to the occasion on the biggest stage.
Names like JJ Daigneault, Stefan Matteu and Bryan Bickell remind players and fans the biggest impacts can often come from unexpected contributors.
For this year, I'll take a look at the less recognizable names that could become legendary in the pursuit of Lord Stanley's famed cup.
Derick Brassard, C, New York Rangers
There is a big reason why the defending Eastern Conference Champions are the heavy favorites who made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals: They are STACKED.
Despite losing starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist for a month-plus, the Rangers raced to the President's Cup Trophy (given to the team with the most points in the regular season) with their offensive firepower and stifling defense.
The team has established stars like wingers Marty St. Louis and Rick Nash. Expect to see a lot of center Derick Brassard, who played with Nash in Columbus.
He scored the first goal Thursday night just 28 seconds into the game (slow starts aren't unusual for the Pittsburgh Penguins), and the Blueshirts took Game 1, 2-1.
He took many face-offs, especially on the power play against a strong Pittsburgh PK.
Coming off a career-high with points this season and 12 in the Rangers' run last year, he will have a chance to shine under the bright lights of Broadway.
Brock Nelson, C, New York Islanders
Brock Nelson is one of many young forwards who fill the lineup for Jack Capuano's team.
He came out strong with the opening tally against the Washington Capitals, and he sealed their fate in Game 1 with an empty-netter in the 4-1 victory Wednesday night in Washington, DC.
The team's superstar is John Tavares, who was number one overall pick from 2008 and who has seemingly lacked a supporting cast.
This year, he has it, and the Islanders dominated play in the first half of the season. As a three-seed, they are a dangerous opponent with their depth.
Nelson brings not just a nose for scoring, but he's also part of a strong American hockey lineage.
His grandfather, Billy Christian, played for Team USA in the 60s, including the gold medal winners in 1960, while uncle Dave was on the 1980 team from Lake Placid before playing over 1,000 games in the NHL, including multiple years for the Capitals.
Quite a legacy for young Brock to follow.
Brian Flynn, RW, Montreal Canadiens
Montreal has 23 Stanley Cup banners in the Bell Centre, and the names responsible for them often have French pronunciations. Imagine how the old guard feels to see the lineup full of Americans like Max Pacioretty and Brian Gallagher.
Wednesday night, the Canadiens broke the deadlock and won game one over the Ottawa Senators. Brian Flynn, undrafted from Maine, earned his first three points with the club in his postseason debut.
His time in Buffalo was less than exemplary, and it must have been difficult for the former D-1 captain.
He now has a chance to play quality minutes for the legendary franchise that won the Atlantic Division's regular season.
No word on his affection for poutine, however.
Petr Mrazek, G, Detroit Red Wings
Detroit has the best coach in hockey in Mike Babcock, who surprised many by starting the rookie Mrazek over veteran Jimmy Howard, who has played in the last five postseasons.
Babcock has juggled goalies before for the Red Wings and Team Canada in the Olympics. Thursday night in Tampa, his gamble paid off huge. Mrazek stymied a potent Tampa Bay Lightning offense with 44 saves to steal home ice with a 3-2 win.
Postseason pressure has become almost old hat for the Czech-born goalie.
He took his junior team, the Ottawa 67's, to the 2012 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Conference Finals with strong play, and the same year, he backstopped the Czechs to bronze at the World Junior Championship.
In his first pro season, he won the Calder Cup with Detroit's American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Grand Rapid Griffins.
Not bad for a 23-year-old. It will be interesting to see if Babcock stays with the hot hand Mrazek and how far he can take the Red Wings.
Devan Dubnyk, G, Minnesota Wild
A hot goalie can be the decider of a playoff series, especially against a top-seeded team like the St. Louis Blues. If the Minnesota Wild want to extend the Blues' postseason futility, their acquisition from Arizona needs to stay en fuego.
Dubnyk helped steal game one Thursday night, saving 19 shots in a 4-2 victory against a firepower-heavy Blues team.
Minnesota has some excellent players in both ends, but they haven't been able to stabilize goaltending.
Dubnyk can cement his place for Mike Yeo with an upset of the Blues. Dubnyk won his NHL playoff debut. His last playoff start? Go back to 2007 with the Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL).
Man, he must be happy to get out of Edmonton.
Scott Darling, G, Chicago Blackhawks
I tell anyone who will listen the Hawks have, perhaps, the best lineup to a man of any team in pro sports. To back me up, they've had two Stanley Cups since 2010.
Last year, goalie Corey Crawford struggled at times, and they lost the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Kings on a fluke goal.
Game one started poorly for Crawford on Wednesday night, and he was pulled out after allowing three goals to be scored in the first quarter by a powerful Nashville attack.
Enter Scott Darling, who's spent time in just about every league in North America since leaving the University of Maine in 2010.
He spent time in the Southern Professional League (like high-A), the AA-level ECHL and Central Hockey League, and was in Nashville's AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, last season.
Darling started the season in Rockford, Chicago's affiliate, the Icehogs, in the AHL, before making his NHL debut.
In his first postseason appearance, he made 42 saves and turned a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 win in two overtimes. 'Cause that's what the Hawks do.
If Crawford struggles again, Darling might be the new starter on a dangerous Blackhawks roster.
Sam Bennett, C, Calgary Flames
Hockey players earn their reputation by playing through inconceivable amounts of pain, especially in the postseason. While 18-year-old Sam Bennett is finally healthy for the Flames, getting to this point wasn't easy.
During the scouting combine and training camp, he didn't disclose he had a BROKEN SHOULDER. Calgary took him fourth overall, and he almost made the team.
Instead, he went through rehab, played another year of juniors and finally arrived to the big club.
Despite his age and injury history, he had no problem playing against the Vancouver Canucks in game one on Wednesday night.
His screen allowed Kris Russell to fire the winning goal past Eddie Lack with 30 seconds to go, stealing another win for the comeback Flames.
Much like Claude Giroux put the hockey world on notice in the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (a Flyers loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins), Bennett has the same stage, whether the Flames advance or not.
Sami Vatanen, D, Anaheim Ducks
The Pacific Division champs enter as the top seed in the West, and they return as a star-studded team that has yet to get over the hump in the playoffs.
Forwards like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have earned their reputations, yet playoff hockey often gets decided by offensive output from the blue line. In that vein, Sami Vatanen gives the Ducks another strong source of offense.
He opened game one on Thursday night by scoring past Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, and Vatanen added two assists in the third period onslaught.
The Ducks claimed a 4-2 victory, the only one in the Western Conference playoffs so far.
In his second year of NHL play, Vatanen has garnered significant experience for his age of 23.
In addition to last year's playoffs with the Ducks, he captained Finland in World Juniors U-18 and U-20 tournaments and while playing for his country at the senior World Championships and the Sochi Games. Defense is a position where players peak later.
Look for Vatanen to continue to earn key minutes for Anaheim and the Finns.