Fresh teams pave way for new breakout stars in NHL playoffs
When Rod Brind’Amour watched pregame shows during the regular season, he didn’t think much thought was put into analyzing his Carolina Hurricanes.
“They’d look at the stat sheet and they’ll say: ‘Oh, Sebastian Aho is a good player. Watch for him,’” Brind’Amour said recently.
Now that the Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference final as part of a fresh final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is among the breakout stars who are now in the limelight. Boston’s Brad Marchand, San Jose’s Logan Couture and Brent Burns and St. Louis’ Ryan O’Reilly are a bit more established, but they’ve replaced the stars of NHL playoffs past like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin who aren’t playing anymore.
Even with a lot of hockey’s household names gone, there’s still plenty of star power and story lines for those who look a little closer.
“The more kind of crazy the playoffs get, the more interest is driven, and that’s really exciting,” NHL Network senior coordinating producer Josh Bernstein said. “There’s so many great story lines going on in the playoffs right now, and I feel like it really piques everybody’s interest. It’s great for the game. ”
Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen dazzled for two rounds, Columbus winger Artemi Panarin showed why he deserves a massive July 1 payday, and Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop put himself back in the conversation among the best in the league. But those guys are gone now, too.
Still in the playoffs, Couture leads all scorers with 11 goals and 17 points. His 45 playoff goals since making his debut in 2010 trail only Ovechkin over that time, and his all-around game has him as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate this year.
“Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after his team’s Game 1 victory against St. Louis on Saturday. “He plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your centerman is like that, he drives the guys around him to play as honest a game as that.”
Couture isn’t driving the Sharks by himself, of course. Brent Burns, who two seasons ago won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, is second in the playoffs in scoring and standing out with more than just his offensive acumen.
“He’s always been a good defensive player,” goaltender Martin Jones said. “He’s always been tough to play against in the D-zone. He’s a big guy, chews up a lot of ice. He swarms you.”
One of the Sharks’ biggest challenges in the West final against St. Louis is containing O’Reilly, who hasn’t put up the points as much as he did in the regular season, but was among the best players on the ice in Game 1. O’Reilly is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward and said he’s re-energized by this playoff run after missing the postseason each of the past four years.
“It brings back that life and that excitement, for sure,” said O’Reilly, who has 10 points in his first playoffs since 2014. “This is what it’s all about: playing for the Stanley Cup. That’s what you train for in the summer and every time you touch the ice the goal is to get to playoffs and compete for it.”
No one on the Blues’ active roster has won the Cup, and Jones — as a backup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 — is the only Sharks player with his name on the trophy. That’s not true for several core Bruins players who are still around after winning it in 2011.
That includes Marchand, who might be known more outside hockey as the player who licked an opponent last year but is making waves with his play and mostly staying out of trouble now. There was that time against Columbus that he stepped on Cam Atkinson’s stick and broke it, but there is also an Eastern Conference-best 15 points through 14 games.
“He’s been in these big games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’s a Stanley Cup champion, so he understands maybe a little more than meets the eye sometimes. There’s a time and a place where you really have to be disciplined.”
Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, like Jones, has a Cup ring as a backup and is trying to earn one as a starter. His .938 save percentage is best among playoff goalies who have been in at least four games.
Incredibly in a sport where the aim is to score goals, Carolina’s biggest breakout star is Slavin, who hasn’t scored one. But he does lead the Hurricanes with 11 points — all assists — and averaged over 26 minutes a game while also drawing the toughest defensive matchups.
Slavin is no slouch, and the Hurricanes have known for a while what he’s capable of. Now the rest of hockey is seeing it and lavishing some much-deserved attention on him.
“It’s part of the game,” Slavin said. “Anyone would be lying if they said it’s not nice, but I’ve still just got to go out there and play well and obviously play for the team.”
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno