Sporting Charts

Which NHL Players Raise Their Game In The Playoffs?

“The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.” ~Abraham Lincoln

The Stanley Cup playoffs are a grind. For week after week, men are led into battle after battle. The pursuit of a large jug separates the men from the boys. A ring distinguishes legendary champions from regular season Saturday night heroes.

Are there certain players that bring their best come playoff time? Who are this generation's Billy Smiths, Mark Messiers and Patrick Roy's – hall of fame regular season performers who reached deep to find even one more gear every spring? Is there a way to identify the next unlikely playoff hero – the next Steve Penney, John Druce or Sean Bergenheim?

I have taken a look at this year's playoff lineups and compared each player's regular season statistics to their numbers from the playoffs. In order to keep the results relevant, I have limited the analysis to data from the past five NHL seasons (2008-09 through 2012-13). In addition, I have only summarized players with at least ten playoff games over that period in an effort to add validity and value to the analysis.

THE PRODUCERS

Many of the NHL's biggest superstars have raised the Cup over the past five seasons. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin raised it. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane hoisted it twice each. But which stars have produced the most points per game in the playoffs over that time period? The following table lists the top ten (actually 11, with ties) among this year's playoff participants.

Stanley Cup Playoffs
Highest Points per Game from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Position

Playoff Games

Points per Game

Sidney Crosby

Penguins

C

57

1.28

Evgeni Malkin

Penguins

C

58

1.22

Ryan Getzlaf

Ducks

C

26

1.15

Martin St. Louis

Rangers

RW

18

1.11

Claude Giroux

Flyers

C

50

1.10

Daniel Brière

Canadiens

C

51

1.10

Vincent Lecavalier

Flyers

C

18

1.06

Henrik Zetterberg

Red Wings

LW

61

1.02

Jack Johnson

Blue Jackets

D

12

1.00

Derick Brassard

Rangers

C

12

1.00

Daniel Alfredsson

Red Wings

RW

20

1.00


Crosby, Malkin and St. Louis are the top three in points per game during the regular season over this five year span, so it shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that they are at or near the top of the playoff list. Along with Crosby and Malkin, Giroux, Brière and Zetterberg's playoff performance has been notable since they have consistently excelled over a 50+ game span.

But which playoff point producers raise their game during NHL's second season? I have taken the difference between each player's playoff points per game and their regular season points per game. The following table displays the top ten improvements come playoff time.

Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. Regular Season
Highest Points per Game (PPG) Differential from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Position

Playoff Games

Regular Season PPG

Playoff PPG

Difference

Jack Johnson

Blue Jackets

D

12

0.44

1.00

0.56

Derick Brassard

Rangers

C

12

0.58

1.00

0.42

Brayden Schenn

Flyers

C

11

0.42

0.82

0.40

Daniel Briere

Canadiens

C

51

0.74

1.10

0.36

Teddy Purcell

Lightning

RW

18

0.59

0.94

0.35

Steve Downie

Flyers

RW

17

0.52

0.82

0.30

Max Talbot

Avalanche

C

55

0.30

0.53

0.23

Vincent Lecavalier

Flyers

C

18

0.83

1.06

0.22

Claude Giroux

Flyers

C

50

0.88

1.10

0.22

Bryan Bickell

Blackhawks

LW

38

0.41

0.63

0.22

Chris Kreider

Rangers

LW

26

0.13

0.35

0.22


Are you surprised that the man at the top is a defenseman? Let alone one playing for the Blue Jackets – a team with only one playoff visit and not a single postseason victory in their history. But he was a King, you say. True, but he was involved in the Jeff Carter deal that set into motion L.A.'s Cup run. Considering all that, Johnson was quite productive in back-to-back King conference quarterfinal exits. Could this be a welcomed sign as Columbus heads back to the playoffs?

The list above has a balanced mix of high point producers such as Brière, Lecavalier and Giroux and role players like Purcell, Talbot and Bickell who seem to come through as the pressure rises. If these are the producers who rise to the occasion, who are the players that disappear like the snow come spring? The following table summarizes the ten biggest drops in point production.

Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. Regular Season
Lowest Points per Game (PPG) Differential from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Position

Playoff Games

Regular Season PPG

Playoff PPG

Difference

David Desharnais

Canadiens

C

10

0.62

0.20

-0.42

Derek Roy

Blues

C

11

0.77

0.36

-0.41

Brad Richards

Rangers

C

30

0.94

0.53

-0.41

T.J. Oshie

Blues

RW

19

0.67

0.26

-0.40

Marian Gaborik

Kings

RW

25

0.92

0.52

-0.40

Rick Nash

Rangers

LW

16

0.88

0.50

-0.38

Lee Stempniak

Penguins

RW

11

0.55

0.18

-0.37

Brenden Morrow

Blues

LW

14

0.61

0.29

-0.32

Ryan Malone

Lightning

LW

18

0.65

0.33

-0.32

Andrei Markov

Canadiens

D

13

0.70

0.38

-0.32


There certainly is a common group of teams represented: Montreal, St. Louis and the New York Rangers all have more than one underperformer.  And seeing names like Roy, Gaborik and Markov aren't surprising. But this list includes a Conn Smythe winner (Richards – albeit ten years ago) and two gold medalists (Nash and Morrow). Of course, Richards' visit to John Tortorella's doghouse in last season's playoffs didn't help.

And then there are the panic moves made my GM's to bolster lineups as the season draws to a close. Do you think Ray Shero knew about Stempniak's playoff doldrums when the winger was acquired from Calgary in a last minute deadline deal? He also acquired Morrow last season and that deal fell flat for Pittsburgh.

It is also worth noting that two all-stars narrowly missed this list with differentials of -0.31 per game. Both Steven Stamkos and Zack Parise must elevate their game further for the playoffs despite both players being involved in a lengthy playoff run over the past few seasons.

THE DEFENDERS

Point production is important, but winning every defensive battle and playing strong two-way hockey is essential during the second season. I did a similar analysis for plus/minus as I did for points per game. I determined each 2014 playoff participant's average plus/minus over seven games for both the regular season and playoffs. Again, I narrowed my analysis to the past five seasons – 2008-09 through 2012-13. The following lists the NHL players in this year's playoffs with the best playoff plus/minus.

Stanley Cup Playoffs
Highest Plus/Minus from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Position

Playoff Games

Playoff Plus/Minus per 7 Games

Nathan Horton

Blue Jackets

RW

43

5.05

Milan Lucic

Bruins

LW

77

3.45

Henrik Zetterberg

Red Wings

LW

61

3.44

Bryan Bickell

Blackhawks

LW

38

3.13

Johnny Oduya

Blackhawks

D

36

3.11

Tyler Toffoli

Kings

C

12

2.92

Steve Downie

Flyers

RW

17

2.88

David Krejci

Bruins

C

74

2.84

Pavel Datsyuk

Red Wings

C

58

2.41

Torey Krug

Bruins

D

15

2.33


At first glance, the results cannot be right. Could Horton really average a +5 over a seven game series? However, during the 2010-11 and 2012-13 playoffs, Horton accumulated a +31 – a fairly remarkable standard in today's game as it would translate into a +59 over an 82 game schedule. Horton's former Bruin teammates, Lucic, Krejci and Krug also made the list explaining why Boston has reached two of the last three Cup finals. Last year's champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, are also well represented by strong role players like Oduya and Bickell. Of course, Bickell's 17 points in last year's playoff run helped boost his plus/minus numbers. But which players improved the most compared to the regular season?

Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. Regular Season
Highest Plus/Minus Differential from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Position

Playoff Games

Regular Season +/- per 7 Games

Playoff +/- per 7 Games

Difference

Torey Krug1

Bruins

D

15

-2.33

2.33

4.67

Nathan Horton

Blue Jackets

RW

43

0.56

5.05

4.49

Cam Fowler

Ducks

D

13

-2.05

2.15

4.20

Vincent Lecavalier

Flyers

C

18

-0.79

2.33

3.13

Johnny Oduya

Blackhawks

D

36

0.39

3.11

2.72

Henrik Zetterberg

Red Wings

LW

61

0.78

3.44

2.66

Nate Thompson

Lightning

C

18

-1.35

1.17

2.52

Bryan Bickell

Blackhawks

LW

38

0.62

3.13

2.51

Steve Downie

Flyers

RW

17

0.43

2.88

2.45

Dan Cleary

Red Wings

RW

65

-0.17

2.15

2.32

Note: 1Torey Krug only played three regular season games between 2008-09 and 2012-13.

Krug leads the way, but if you saw my note, he had little regular season experience prior to becoming a mainstay on the Bruins D throughout the playoffs. But wait! Let me repeat myself. He had barely any experience and then averaged over a +2 as the games became urgent.

Horton, Bickell and Oduya all show up again, but it's the players who average a minus in the regular season and a plus during the playoffs that draw my attention. Lecavalier, Thompson and Cleary obviously recognize that they must step it up in the playoffs. The next table identifies players who, on the other hand, fail to answer the bell.

Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. Regular Season
Lowest Plus/Minus Differential from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Position

Playoff Games

Regular Season +/- per 7 Games

Playoff +/- per 7 Games

Difference

Barret Jackman

Blues

D

19

0.31

-4.05

-4.37

Lee Stempniak

Penguins

RW

11

-0.16

-4.45

-4.29

Thomas Vanek

Canadiens

LW

10

0.06

-4.20

-4.26

Vernon Fiddler

Stars

C

10

-0.14

-4.20

-4.06

Zach Parise

Wild

LW

41

1.14

-2.22

-3.36

Saku Koivu

Ducks

C

17

0.44

-2.88

-3.33

Brian Gionta

Canadiens

RW

35

0.32

-2.80

-3.12

Robyn Regehr

Kings

D

18

-0.04

-3.11

-3.07

T.J. Oshie

Blues

RW

19

0.84

-2.21

-3.05

Deryk Engelland

Penguins

D

13

0.30

-2.69

-2.99


Perhaps the playoffs are a big man's game since six of the seven forwards (all except Vanek) are under six feet. As the playoffs roll around, the rink appears much smaller and regular season stars like Oshie and Parise no longer have the same impact. The performance of Jackman and Oshie may be an indicator as to why the Blues haven't gained any traction in recent playoffs. Notice the absence of any Cup winners from the Blackhawks, Bruins and Kings (Regehr was with Buffalo when L.A. raised Stanley). There may be fancier stats out there, but plus/minus does still separate the winners and losers.

THE GUARDIANS

Finally, there is the last line of defense – the goaltenders. A goalie's value to a deep Cup run is immeasurable in so many ways. However, the more success they have is usually an inverse relationship to the number of goals they let in. Consequently, I next analyzed each of this year's playoff tender's goals against average (GAA) over the past five seasons (2008-09 through 2012-13). The following table ranks the top five playoff GAA's among the masked men playing spring hockey this year.

Stanley Cup Playoffs
Lowest Goals Against Average from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Playoff Games

Playoff GAA

Tim Thomas

Stars

43

1.98

Jonathan Quick

Kings

50

2.03

Corey Crawford

Blackhawks

37

2.04

Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers

44

2.13

Tuukka Rask

Bruins

35

2.14


If you ever wondered whether there was a correlation between playoff success and hot goaltending, the list above should convince you. The past three Stanley Cup winning goalies (Thomas, Quick and Crawford) are the top three and Rask was with the Bruins' 2010-11 Cup champs and last year's finalists. Lundqvist's performance is somewhat connected to playoff success but is attributed as much to Tortorella's defensive game plan than to his staunch goaltending.

The table above showed the best playoff GAA's, but which goalies see the biggest reduction in playoff GAA in comparison to the regular season?

Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. Regular Season
Lowest Goals Against Average Differential from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Playoff Games

Regular Season GAA

Playoff GAA

Difference

Corey Crawford

Blackhawks

37

2.39

2.04

-0.35

Jonathan Quick

Kings

50

2.31

2.03

-0.28

Tim Thomas

Stars

43

2.23

1.98

-0.25

Jonas Hiller

Ducks

20

2.55

2.31

-0.24

Semyon Varlamov

Avalanche

19

2.61

2.49

-0.12

Like the list of top playoff GAA's, the list of the best differentials has the past Cup winners leading the way. Among the other two, Hiller hasn't had a ton of playoff experience, but has performed well in two trips to the postseason. This included an especially strong 2008-09 conference quarterfinal upset of the Presidents' Trophy winning San Jose Sharks. Varlamov had decent playoff success in a previous life with Washington, but his differential is over ten points less than Hiller's.

The next table lists the goalies that cause their coaches to lose the most sleep as a result of their recent playoff performance. I have ranked the goalies below by which ones get pulled when the going gets tough.

Stanley Cup Playoffs vs. Regular Season
Highest Goals Against Average Differential from 2008-09 through 2012-13
(2014 playoff participants with minimum 10 playoff games)

Name

Team

Playoff Games

Regular Season GAA

Playoff GAA

Difference

Ilya Bryzgalov

Wild

22

2.59

3.61

1.03

Marc-Andre Fleury

Penguins

55

2.49

2.93

0.44

Carey Price

Canadiens

19

2.56

2.98

0.42

Antti Niemi

Sharks

56

2.34

2.65

0.31

Jimmy Howard

Red Wings

42

2.36

2.57

0.21


Do the two goalies topping the list sound familiar? They were heavily featured in one of the most memorable opening round Stanley Cup playoff series – Pittsburgh and Philadelphia's 2012 conference quarterfinal. But the series wasn't memorable for rock solid goaltending; instead, Bryzgalov and the Flyers outpaced the Penguins. All in all, 56 goals were scored in the series (Philadelphia with 30, Pittsburgh with 26). The Flyers had back-to-back eight goal games and the Penguins tallied ten in Game 4.

Three of the goalies listed above (Bryzgalov, Fleury and Niemi) have all won the Stanley Cup. Bryzgalov would likely not even be getting a shot at the playoffs this season if it wasn't for injuries to Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. And how does Dan Bylsma give up on Fleury when his regular season performance continues to be solid? Price and Howard are the wild cards in the group. Their regular season success can't be denied and this eventually should payoff in the playoffs. Perhaps Price's gold medal will be the inspiration he needs. Or could Howard's Sochi disappointment fuel his fire?

Let the battles begin. We will soon see who folds under pressure. And we will all witness who rises to the occasion.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.