Every team's playoff hopes lie in the hands of its best players. While you need everybody to be contributing, there's a reason we still hear the platitude "You need your best players to be your best players." Some of them -- like Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Claude Giroux -- are obvious. Others are more subtle, either because their stats are less flashy or their reputation is less well-established.
As the 2012 playoffs begin Wednesday, there are several players whose impact on their team's potential postseason success far outweighs their reputation. The following are four of the most noteworthy, starting with a pivotal pivot in Boston and an underrated blueliner in New York.
Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins: On a team with Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara, it is easy to overlook that the defense relies as much on Bergeron as anyone else. Boston is the league's best faceoff team by far, winning 55 percent of its draws, and that is almost entirely due to Bergeron, who won 59.3 percent of his own, second in the NHL only to Jonathan Toews (59.4 percent). Those faceoff wins translate into puck possession: at even-strength, while Bergeron was on the ice, the Bruins outshot their opponents by 302 shots, the best mark in the league. Plus/minus is an unreliable stat, but it's quite obvious in this case how Bergeron led the league with a plus-36 rating. His next task is to achieve the same success against Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the Washington Capitals in the Bruins' opening-round series.
Bergeron's value doesn't stop at even strength, however. He plays a regular shift on both the power play and the penalty kill, and while Boston's power play is only average, its penalty kill has been good: an 83.5 percent success rate, good for 11th in the league, and a threatening eight shorthanded goals, two scored by Bergeron.
As a skill player, Bergeron is also good at drawing penalties: He drew 20 this season and took only 10, once again making life easier for Boston's defensemen and goaltenders.
Ryan McDonagh, D, New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist has finally gotten Vezina consideration after several stellar seasons in the Big Apple, but he's always been good; the big difference for the Rangers this season has been their defense. The Rangers allowed only 2,281 shots, the sixth-lowest total in the league, and their top defense pairing of McDonagh and Dan Girardi can claim much of the credit for this performance. Girardi and McDonough both played all 82 games and ranked third and fourth, respectively, among all NHL defensemen in even-strength ice time per game. It is impossible to identify which was more valuable at even strength since they were on the ice together 86 percent of the time.
And they didn't pile up minutes against second-rate opponents, either. Quality of Competition is a statistic that measures the skill of opponents players face over the course of the season. McDonagh had the seventh-highest Quality of Competition among all NHL players and the highest on the Rangers; Girardi was 12th in the league. McDonagh also started only 43 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, Girardi 44 percent. Despite this, their Corsi -- which measures the net total of shots directed toward your opponent's net against those directed towards your own -- was positive: plus-57 for McDonagh, plus-32 for Girardi. This is even more impressive when you consider that 24 of their games were against opponents from the Atlantic Division, the strongest in the NHL this season.
McDonagh's emergence as an elite NHL defenseman is one of the main reasons the Rangers went from eighth in the conference to first. He'll now have to show that he can help the team get past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Mike Smith, G, Phoenix Coyotes: Eleven different teams have made the playoffs each of the last three seasons, and amazingly the Phoenix Coyotes are one of them. Phoenix won its first division title with the same combination of unlikely offensive contributors, solid team defense and stellar goaltending it used the previous seasons, but this year the goaltending came from an unexpected source: Mike Smith, a 30-year-old journeyman who wasn't re-signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the offseason, came in and posted one of the most impressive goaltending seasons in recent memory. Smith's numbers in 2012 have been otherworldly: a 2.00 GAA, .937 save percentage, 6 shutouts and 26.1 GVT, enough to finish the season with the highest GVT in the NHL. He did all this while facing 31.8 shots per 60 minutes, the fifth-highest rate among No. 1 goaltenders. And he didn't face particularly easy shots. The shots the Coyotes allowed were slightly more dangerous than average based on shot location, so Smith deserves full credit for his numbers.
His challenge now is to prove that he isn't a flash in the pan. Despite home-ice advantage, the Coyotes will have their hands full against the powerful Chicago Blackhawks. Goaltending will be the only position in which Phoenix will have an edge.
Alex Pietrangelo, D, St. Louis Blues: The Blues went from 20th in the NHL to third in a single season, and the key to this impressive feat was reducing their goals against from 228 to 155, almost one less per game and a modern NHL record. Such defensive excellence obviously involved the whole team, starting from the goaltenders out, but one subtly excellent player was defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues' No. 1 defenseman who was the team's offensive sparkplug and defensive rock.
Pietrangelo's offensive talents are well-known. He finished fifth among NHL defensemen in points, scoring regularly at both even strength and on the power play. His 5.57 points per 60 minutes on the power play were tops in the league among defensemen.
Unlike many young defensemen with offensive talent, however, Pietrangelo excels equally at both ends of the ice: He actually spent even more time (3:12 per game) on the penalty kill than he did on the power play (2:52 per game) and finished second to P.K. Subban for the most special-teams ice time in the NHL. Of the league's top five scoring defensemen, only Pietrangelo and Zdeno Chara were also regular penalty-killers.
As long as Pietrangelo is healthy enough to play 25 minutes a night, scoring on the Blues will continue to be a challenge, and defeating them an exploit.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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