2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Small Names Making Big Plays

May 22, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators center Colton Sissons (10) scores his hat-trick goal on a shot against the Anaheim Ducks in the third period in game six of the Western Conference Final of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there have been the usual stars shining brightly. Evgeni Malkin and Ryan Getzlaf still lead in points for the playoffs. But there”s also been the creation of new stars in Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Ottawa, and Nashville.

In the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Nashville, Anaheim, Ottawa, and Pittsburgh have all seen the rise of brand new stars. Former unknowns have risen to prominence due to their playoff play, and they’ve made new names for themselves.

Names like Jake Guentzel, Pontus Aberg, and Dennis Rasmussen have made important plays. In the process, they’ve risen from names known only by their fanbases to prominence in the national spotlight.

Jake Guentzel

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Pittsburgh Penguins center Jake Guentzel (59) shoots on Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson (41) (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

Jake Guentzel leads the playoffs in goals. That’s an impressive statistic for a rookie who previous to the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs had only played 40 NHL games. Most of that, including the playoffs, have come playing on Sidney Crosby‘s wing. Conor Sheary, last year, was a somewhat similar story to Guentzel, also playing off Sidney Crosby.

But Guentzel is a bigger and better story than Sheary. Mainly because, in his first playoffs, he has more points than Sheary did. That includes more goals. And Sheary was in the AHL for a full year before his jump to the NHL. Guentzel in his year before his NHL debut was at the University of Nebraska.

Guentzel, outside of the big three for Pittsburgh (Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby), has the most points for the Penguins. That includes a crucial hat trick against first round opponent Columbus Blue Jackets. Guentzel followed that hat trick up with a short-handed goal the very next game.

Guentzel has also been able to assist numerous players throughout the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s assisted on goals from Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Justin Schultz, Bryan Rust, and Olli Maatta. Of his six assists in these playoffs, three have been primary. That means that the youngster is learning to be a playmaker in the NHL and at the biggest level of the NHL.

So how has a 22-year-old center fresh from college become the leading goal scorer in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Well, an apprenticeship under Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s best player, doesn’t hurt. But Jake Guentzel also has a natural finishing ability that has come in handy against the best of the Metro and Ottawa.

Colton Sissons

In 10 playoff games last year, Colton Sissons had 0 points for the Nashville Predators. In three regular seasons, Sissons has only played 109 games. 58 of those came this year. He’s only posted 20 points in those games.

Yet, Colton Sissons immediately made a name for himself against the Anaheim Ducks in game 6. He posted a game-winning hat trick for the Predators and has stepped up in the place of both Mike Fisher and Ryan Johansen. He played 16 minutes that game, most of any center not named Calle Jarnkrok, who had 22.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Nashville Predators center Colton Sissons (10) scores his hat-trick goal (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Sissons has posted 10 points in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That includes the three goals from game 6, but also 5 more assists and 2 more goals. Sissons’ assists have all been primary, so his’ playmaking abilities have shined brightly for the Yellow and Blue.

Sissons scored three times versus the Chicago Blackhawks – once in the 5-0 beating, and twice in the third period of the eliminating game. Those two points were critical, as he scored the game-winning goal and assisted on another that cemented the win. He’s scored two game-winning goals in these playoffs, and assisted on one more, from Cody McLeod.

Sissons and a few other Nashville Predators are making a predicament for upper management. Do the Predators, fresh off their first Stanley Cup Final appearance, protect their four defensemen, as was the plan before the playoffs? Or do they protect seven forwards now, because there are more than seven forwards who have earned their spot? Colton Sissons isn’t making it easy.

Defensemen

Anaheim

When the Anaheim Ducks began the playoffs, they were missing a lot of defensemen. Out of 17 games, only three have played all 17. The first two, rather unsurprisingly, are future first defenseman Hampus Lindholm and great depth guy Josh Manson.

But the third, Brandon Montour, is a surprise. This was Montour’s rookie season, and he only played 27 games. In those games, he scored 6 points, including 2 goals. And then Montour posted 7 assists in this year’s playoffs. Needless to say, Anaheim is counting their blessed stars that Montour is exempt from this year’s NHL expansion draft.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson (36) right wing Logan Shaw (48) defenseman Shea Theodore (53) and defenseman Brandon Montour (71) celebrate the victory against the Nashville Predators (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Joining Montour, his fellow Ducks defenseman, is Shea Theodore. This wasn’t Theodore’s rookie year, but he’s still played only 53 games in the National Hockey League. In those games, Theodore had 17 points. He also exploded in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, posting 8 points in 14 games. Last year, Theodore had no points in 6 playoff games.

Of those 8 points, 2 were goals in the first series against Calgary. One of those was a game-tying goal. Theodore also assisted on a game-winning goal and assisted on two more goals in the first round. Theodore also assisted on a game-winning goal against Edmonton in the second round, before assisting on another game-tying goal against Nashville. He’s been busy.

Not Anaheim

Matt Irwin has been one of Nashville’s better defensive defensemen throughout the playoffs. Playing on the third pairing with Yannick Weber, Irwin’s taken advantage of any opportunities he’s had. He was a Shark before they were good and then joined the Boston Bruins for 2 games last year.

Irwin has 22 blocks in 16 games in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s added two assists and three takeaways. He’s one of just 10 Nashville Predators with a positive Corsi relative, and he’s got a 52.7 in that category. Mostly, that means he’s really good at shutting down the other team.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ian Cole (28) skates with the puck (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Ian Cole is going to be a great number one defenseman for the Vegas Golden Knights. In 81 games, Cole put up 26 points. That includes five goals, one of which was game-winning. That means that on this list, Cole might be the biggest name. Still, there’s not many outside of Pittsburgh that know him, mainly because of the lack of recognition of the Pittsburgh Penguins defense.

But in the playoffs, Cole has exploded. He’s tenth in points among Penguins, with 6 points, all of them being assists. He’s playing eighteen and a half minutes a night, and during those minutes he’s been a positive. His Corsi relative is at a 2.5, and he’s been incredible at locking down the opponent. Most of his zone starts have been in the defensive zone, yet he’s able to get the Penguins back on offense.

Other Forwards

Nashville

Austin Watson is a forward for the Nashville Predators. The fact that you didn’t know that is why he’s on this list. In fact, because you don’t recognize any of these names is why they’re on this list. Watson has 4 goals in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also has added 2 more assists. Prior to the playoffs this year, Watson had 28 points in 140 NHL games.

Watson has also been tasked with being a defensive forward. He’s handled his task well, shown in his ability to score. When 66% of his starts have come in the defensive zone, that truly is impressive, as he’s able to clear his own zone and get it back on the opponent’s net. That represents something special for this Nashville team. Also special – Watson is a restricted free agent, and unlikely to be taken in the expansion draft.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Nashville Predators left wing Pontus Aberg (46) falls to the ice after scoring a goal (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Pontus Aberg has come on strong to the Predators in the Western Conference Finals of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Against the Ducks, Aberg (pronounced Aug-berg) has posted a goal and two primary assists, both on Colton Sissons goals. Aberg played a huge role in Sissons’ hat trick. He also scored this game-winning goal in game 5 (via YouTube.com).

Aberg has begun playing top 6 minutes for the Predators, and it’s making him seem incredible. He’s a 4.5 Corsi relative in the playoffs, and that’s because of his ability to possess the puck and not get bumped. Not bad for a rookie who’s actually not qualified as a rookie (he only played 15 games, you have to play 18).

Anaheim

Chris Wagner scored three goals in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One of those was a game-winning one, as the Ducks got past the Edmonton Oilers. Not bad for a guy with 4 career playoff games prior to this year, with zero points in them. Wagner was also traded by Anaheim to Colorado last year, then ended up back in Anaheim.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Anaheim Ducks right wing Chris Wagner (21) moves the puck (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

He’s never had a season as successful as this one. Wagner has been playing middle 6 minutes on a great line with young guys like Nate Thompson and Ondrej Kase. Who’s up next on this list.

Ondrej Kase is a rookie who previous to this year had played in the AHL for just 25 games, so not even a full season. Then he was brought to Anaheim and played in 53 games. He posted 15 points in those games, so again, not a household name. Kase has blocked four shots and has taken away the puck four times. He’s also exempt from the expansion draft. Ducks keep lucking out here.

Other

The Blackhawks’ future fourth line center, Dennis Rasmussen was one of just three Chicago Blackhawks to score a goal. More than that, Rasmussen was a valuable Blackhawk because of the effort he brought to playing in the playoffs. He was one of very few Blackhawks who actually appeared to care.

Carter Rowney has posted three assists in 12 games as a Penguins forward in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Before that, he had only appeared in 27 games and posted 7 points in the NHL. There’s a lot of teams getting a lot of worth out of rising players in these playoffs, and the Penguins have been able to find value on both offense and defense.

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