Time for players to prove their mettle
The Stanley Cup playoffs are, of course, the greatest challenge in team sports, perhaps in all sport.
But within the complicated framework of chemistry and teamwork, this is also the time of year in which the spotlight shines brightest on individual players. Fairly or not, these are the days in which players' reputations are forged, whether it's the heroic leader or the clutch scorer or, conversely, the playoff choker, the high-priced star who can't get it done.
Herein, a look at 16 players who will feel the sometimes uncomfortable warmth of the playoff spotlight in the coming days:
The scoring title's not even warm and the votes haven't yet been tallied for the Hart Trophy and we're already raising the bar on the diminutive St. Louis. A year ago, St. Louis would have gotten a free pass, but this spring the Lightning aren't the sentimental playoff beginners, they're the top team in the Eastern Conference and anything less than a berth in the conference final will be seen, rightly so, as a setback. To get there, St. Louis will have to meet and surpass that elusive bar of expectation as he did throughout the regular season.
New York: Alexei Yashin It almost goes without saying that the talented Russian, one of the NHL's top-paid players, has yet to realize his playoff potential. Since arriving in the NHL in 1993, Yashin has played in just 38 playoff games and has netted a paltry 11 goals and 26 points. His teams have won just one lonely playoff series. That's not getting it done. It would, of course, be a monumental upset if the Islanders upended Tampa Bay. They certainly won't get to play this spring's Cinderella role if Yashin doesn't deliver.
Just as Thornton had to grow into his skin as one of the NHL's top forwards, he must grow, too, into the same kind of playoff performer. No question the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Thornton has evolved into a dominant power forward and one of the best two-way players in the NHL. But his six goals in 28 playoffs games reminds us there is a huge learning curve ahead of him. Two years ago, the Bruins won the East and fell to Montreal in the first round. Many feel this Bruins team, behind rookie goaltender Andrew Raycroft and a suddenly deep defensive unit led by Sergei Gonchar, has the parts to go deep in the playoffs. The length of that journey still comes back to Thornton, even though he enters the playoffs suffering from an "upper body" injury (wrist or ribs seem to be the most likely ailments).
Montreal: Alexei Kovalev
It begins and ends for the Canadiens with netminder Jose Theodore. Assuming Theodore's continued solid play, the Canadiens look again to be a playoff dark horse. But someone has to provide the scoring, which means, if you're a Habs fan, you're hoping Kovalev has been saving up for the postseason. Since arriving in Montreal in what was a surprise trade deadline acquisition, the talented if puzzling Kovalev has delivered one empty-net goal and two assists in 12 games. The man knows how to win (he has a Stanley Cup ring from New York in 1994 and 67 points in 83 career playoff games). Here is his chance to prove it once again.
It's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel when you're shining the playoff light on the Flyers and their well-documented goaltending foibles. This time it's the likable, often capable, sometimes injured, unproven Esche. Although veteran Sean Burke waits in the wings, he has not won a playoff series since 1988. That's not a misprint -- 1988. The Flyers insist they have confidence that Esche can get the job done. But the more players say it, whether they mean it or not, the more it must be clear to Esche, who has but 30 minutes of playoff action to his name, that the leash will be very, very short even if the team's insurance policy hasn't won a series since 1988. (Did we mention that?) The Flyers have the depth and the coaching to do it all, but that can only happen if Esche displays the mental toughness that has often been lacking in the Flyer net come playoff time.
New Jersey: Brian Rafalski
It's unclear just how great is the void created by Scott Stevens' absence, but start with huge and go from there. Scott Niedermayer has turned into the horse on the Devils' back end, but it will be Rafalski's ability to recover from a broken leg and shoulder the load that will speak volumes about the Devils' chances of repeating. Long overlooked, Rafalski chipped in 36 points in 69 games and likely will see his ice time shoot up to the 26-28 minute mark -- if his leg can stand it.
With all the well-deserved attention surrounding Toronto's acquisition of Hall of Fame-bound Brian Leetch, McCabe's career season has quietly faded into the shadows. It shouldn't. His 53 points put him fourth among NHL defensemen, and he was one off the league lead in goal scoring among defensemen with 16. Half of those markers came on the power play. Beyond that, these playoffs represent a time for McCabe to finally shake the notion that he is still a boy, prone to lapses in judgment and a lack of discipline. Although Leetch brings the star power, McCabe is the backbone, the conscience of the Leaf blueline corps. If he brings his "A" game, the Leafs may get that long-awaited chance to exorcise the ghost of 1967.
Ottawa: Patrick Lalime
Last season, the affable Lalime seemed to have put to bed many of the question marks that surrounded him with a strong playoff, which included an impressive ability to put bad goals behind him. The Senators came within a late goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final of likely winning their first Stanley Cup. But Lalime, like the Senators team that won the Presidents' Trophy last season, regressed and watched his win total tumble from 39 to 25, his GAA jump from 2.16 to 2.29 and his save percentage settle in at a very ordinary .905. That regression isn't the issue the angst in Ottawa would lead you to believe (he earned shutouts in two of his final four games), but it is real. On paper, first-round opponent Toronto seems to have a huge edge with Ed Belfour, but Lalime has the goods to match Belfour save for save. Whether he can find that game will go a long way toward determining whether the Senators secure their first playoff victory over their provincial rivals.
Oh, we know all about the goaltending merry-go-round that continues to spin in Hockeytown. But the Red Wings are one of the few teams in the NHL whose depth and talent can overcome mediocrity between the pipes. But if there is one player whose play will mean the difference between success and disappointment, it is Lidstrom. After three straight years as the NHL's top defenseman, Lidstrom saw his point total free fall from 62 to 38 this season. He still remains the game's most complete blueliner and perhaps the security of a new two-year, $20 million deal will allow the talented Swede to refocus on helping the Red Wings forget last year's first-round humiliation at the hands of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Nashville: Steve Sullivan
Let's be honest, no one is going to blame the Predators if they simply enjoy their first playoff experience and go home. But if they are to take a page from the Mighty Ducks' how-to-play-with-the-big-boys book, then much of the offensive burden will continue to be shouldered by the diminutive Sullivan, who was superlative with 30 points in 24 games since coming to Nashville. Young players are going to look to the veteran (he's 29) for cues on how to behave during the playoffs, how to play when the chips are down, how to play in tight quarters. It's a grand stage for a great little player.
Earlier this year, coach Ron Wilson told ESPN.com that it took awhile for the leaders on his young Sharks team to embrace their new roles. Chief among those who stepped forward is the second overall pick in the 1997 draft. Marleau led the Sharks in scoring as San Jose stunned the hockey world by finishing first in the Pacific with a franchise-best 104 points after missing the playoffs and finishing last in the division a year ago. The Sharks will live and die in the playoffs with their devotion to Wilson's system and the goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov. With goals hard to come by, Marleau once again will have to embrace a new role as the team's playoff go-to guy if the regular season isn't to be seen as a fluke.
St. Louis: Keith Tkachuk
Look up the word "disappointment" in the playoff dictionary and you see a picture of the Blues. Big payroll, big egos and precious little to show for it when the chips are down. The same might be said of Tkachuk himself. Last year, the high-priced power forward managed just one goal as the Blues blew a 3-1 lead in the first round against Vancouver. He has never scored more than six goals in one playoff year. Still, Tkachuk has rebounded with a stellar regular season (71 points to lead the Blues) and if he brings it against the Sharks, this promises to be a long and memorable series, even if no one's watching.
It wasn't so long ago that Jovanovski, the first pick in the 1994 draft, seemed ready to join Lidstrom, Stevens, Chris Pronger, et al., in the elite club of NHL defensemen. But an injury-plagued campaign has left many questions unanswered heading into the postseason. A shoulder injury that cost the big defenseman the last quarter of the season seems to have healed, and his return to the lineup in the last week coincided with a late burst from the Canucks. A physical force, Jovanovski's play will be crucial against a Calgary team that plays it tough along the boards and in the corners. On the power play, Jovanovski's return should inject life into a unit that finished 22nd overall.
Calgary: Miikka Kiprusoff
Poor Kiprusoff, the playoffs haven't even started and he already has been anointed this year's Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The 27-year-old emerged as the steal of the year for Darryl Sutter and the Flames, who nabbed him from San Jose for a conditional draft pick in November. All Kiprusoff did was lead the lead in GAA (1.69) and tie for the league lead with a .933 save percentage. But is the first-time starter who played only 38 games, almost exactly half that put in by New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, for real? Well, real enough to help end the Flames' seven-year playoff drought. Real enough to earn the Giguere label? With only four playoff games to his credit, we'll soon see.
Oh, what magic they were supposed to weave in Denver, the former glitter twins from Anaheim, Selanne and his faithful sidekick, Paul Kariya. What a stunning disappointment. Kariya, who missed 31 games with a wrist injury, left the final regular-season game with an ankle injury, and Selanne's 16 goals are the lowest total of his often spectacular NHL career. Coach Tony Granato made the former NHL scoring king (76 goals in 1992-93) and four-time 40-goal man a healthy scratch in recent weeks, and if it weren't for the Avalanche's lengthy injury list, Selanne might have spent more time in the press box. But the playoffs are all about redemption, and on a team that seems uncertain of its identity in spite of its star-studded lineup, the table is set for prime-time players such as Selanne.
Dallas: Mike Modano
Name an NHL star that had a worse season whose name isn't Bertuzzi? Anyone? One of the most reliable, resilient, respected players in the league, Modano has suffered through the season from hell. Personal problems, financial problems, scoring problems, defensive problems -- Modano had them all. He finished with career lows in goals (14) and points (44) (lockout season not included) and a whopping minus-21 rating. Still, his Stars surged into the middle of the playoff pack, and if Modano returns to form, they could once again find themselves at the big dance when the smoke has cleared.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.