Thursday, April 11, 2002
Updated: April 17, 3:42 PM ET
ESPN The Magazine: Out of the shadows
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, your stars have to step up. But you also need breakout performances from your young talent and supporting cast. In the Finals last June, baby-faced C Alex Tanguay scored a beauty of a goal to propel the Avs past the Devils in Game 7. The year before, then-Devils C Jason Arnott burst onto the scene with his OT Cup winner in Dallas. Who skates into the spotlight this spring? Here are some bit players who may take center stage.
At the 2001 draft, Islanders GM Mike Milbury revived his near-dead franchise by swinging blockbuster deals for centers Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca. Lost in the hubbub was a smaller trade with Tampa Bay for D Adrian Aucoin. "We got him for the power play," Milbury admits. But Aucoin has become much more than a special-teams player. In fact, Isles coach Peter Laviolette can't find enough ice time for the surprisingly versatile Aucoin, who logged a league-high 40:32 vs. Toronto on March 19. Despite the presence of world-class D-men Kenny Jonsson and Roman Hamrlik, Aucoin leads the Isles in average minutes (28:49) and plus/minus (plus-22). If good things happen to the Islanders in their first playoff trip since 1994, you can bet Aucoin will be on the ice.
He's always had the quick feet, the cannon shot, the hockey smarts. Bs coach Robbie Ftorek knew it way back in Albany. It just took Brian Rolston a while to find his niche. After growing pains in Jersey and a stint buried beneath the big shots in Colorado, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound wing is becoming a big shot himself. Ftorek parks Rollie's slap shot on the point for the PP and his wheels on the PK, and his aggressive two-way play has Boston fans talking Selke. Now, with 30 goals, Rolston is more than just a pair of quick feet. In the playoffs, Bruins fans won't be the only people talking him up.
In most word-association games, Blackhawks=Tony Amonte. But this season,
6-foot-6, 234-pound Eric Daze has been Chicago's biggest spark. He's graceful for a big man, with an intimidating stride, tremendous reach and a nasty snap shot. At this year's All-Star Game in LA, Daze (Da-ZAY) had two goals and an assist and became the first Hawk to win MVP since Bobby Hull in 1971. But Daze was left in the shade when goaltender Nik Khabibulin's third-period heroics got all the press. Now it's showtime for Daze. With Amonte hitting the free-agent market on July 1, the spotlight is on Daze to prove he can carry the Hawks and become the new marquee player in the Windy City.
When Jeremy Roenick came east and skated with Simon Gagne for the first time, his one-word reaction was, "Wow!" The 22-year-old winger's talent is staggering but
next to Philly's superstars not everyone notices. Gagne's teammates know about the
on-ice vision, the explosive strides, the hands, the scoring knack that can change
the flow of a game (17 of Gagne's 33 goals have been go-aheads). And don't forget the grit. Gagne has taken Philly to heart, and the French-Canadian soph digs in the corners and stands up for his buddies. This kid is the real deal. Pay attention because by the time the playoffs are over it won't just be JR saying, "Wow!"
Matty Norstrom is tough. Just ask Avalanche C Peter Forsberg, who lost his spleen after the seven-game war he waged with the Kings captain in the 2001 Western Conference semifinals. The rugged 6-foot-2, 220-pound Norstrom always draws the toughest assignment. Though he skates in the oversized shadow of former D-partner Rob Blake, his peers treat him like a star. His teammates have voted
him their unsung hero three years running. "You don't win too many one-on-one battles against that guy," says Devils C Joe Nieuwendyk. If these Kings reign in the playoffs, they'll sing the praises of their unsung hero.
This article appears in the April 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.