Even in a year where we're not totally sure what to expect from a very unique and weird Stanley Cup Playoffs, one thing is a near certainty: Some of the best players in hockey will rise to the occasion to take part in some iconic, high-octane moments. That's the beauty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, no matter when or where they're played. Amid all the chaos, certain players find a way to emerge as heroes (or villains) in some of the greatest theatre sports has to offer.
With an expanded playoff picture this year, that means an expanded pool of players that will have an opportunity to seize the spotlight -- for better or worse. Here are 12 players from the Eastern Conference that will be worth keeping a close eye on once the postseason gets underway this weekend.
This pick could have easily gone to David Pastrnak, who shared the lead for goals scored this year, or Charlie McAvoy, who has become the Bruins' top defenseman in front of Tuukka Rask. However, when it comes to entertainment value, there's nobody that tops Marchand. Between his elite playmaking abilities (87 points this year) and his on-ice antics, he always tends to put on a show -- for better or worse. How can you not go with the guy who's been voted both the best and worst trash talker in the league in each of the past two seasons?
The Lightning have a whole lot of talent on the roster -- especially at the offensive end with the likes of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos -- but Point is a player who absolutely deserves to be appreciated more. He's an exceptional, young two-way center who has become arguably become Tampa's most important forward. Not only is he capable of shutting down top opposing players, he's also taken great strides offensively over the past few years and is very capable of doing damage in the O-zone.
Holtby is likely approaching the end of his road with the Caps as he's on the final year of his current deal. He's been the longtime starter in Washington, leading the Caps to a Stanley Cup title in 2018, but has largely struggled over the past three seasons. An injury to young goalie Ilya Samsonov has essentially guaranteed Holtby one more shot at leading the Caps to glory. If he's able to do that, he'll be able to close the book on his Washington career on a positive note while earning himself a whole lot more cash this offseason.
Couturier is arguably the most important and complete forward on a Flyers team that is hoping to continue the surprising success they had during the regular season. He's a 200-foot player who contributes in all situations and has a tendency to come up big for Philly. The last time the Flyers made the playoffs, Couturier led the team with nine points (five goals and four assists) in just five games played. They'll rely on him to find similar success this time around.
Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin are the more obvious choices here because they bring more outright entertainment value, but Letang is crucial on the blue line for Pittsburgh. He logs over 25 minutes a night and will take a lion's share of the defensive responsibilities throughout the Penguins' run. How well he plays could have a major impact on how much success Pittsburgh finds.
The Canes have a young, exciting bunch of forwards at the front of their lineup and Aho headlines that group. He's been the team's most productive playmaker over the last two years, including during Carolina's run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. He's very fun to watch and has been known to throw around a fun postgame quote or two, so he
There's no shortage of exciting talent up front for the Maple Leafs -- Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner or William Nylander would all be worthy selections here -- but JT is an elite offensive force who may have the most responsibility on his shoulders. Tavares was the free agent prize that was supposed to put Toronto over the top and, though he's had plenty of individual success with the Leafs, that breakthrough hasn't happened yet. Now with the 'C' on his sweater, there's a little more pressure to deliver big when it matters most.
Jones is one of the most impressive and dominant young defensemen in the NHL and he's an absolute workhorse for the Blue Jackets. Columbus seemed to be in major trouble when he underwent ankle surgery in February but the coronavirus shutdown may have helped them out big time. Not only did the pause lead to the expanded playoff picture that let CBJ get in, but the time off also allowed Jones to recover and get back into the lineup. The Jackets will lean on him to help them make an unlikely run.
The Islanders usually rely on their defensive structure to carry them to victory and they're not exactly known as a fearsome offensive unit. However, they do have some talented and productive players up front, most notably Mat Barzal, who will likely need to be at his best if the Isles are going to score enough to make some noise. Barzal has great hands, vision and speed and he's capable of making the highlight reel on any given night.
Panarin is an MVP finalist this season and for very good reason. He's been one of the most exciting and dominant players in the league all year long, finishing third in points (95) and driving New York's attack on a nightly basis. Panarin's impact is unquestionable -- when he was on the ice the Rangers scored 66% of the goals, and that share dropped down to 42% when he wasn't on the ice. He's essentially appointment television.
After signing a $70 million contract with the Panthers last offseason, Bobrovsky has had one of the worst years of his career in net for Florida. The defense in front of him hasn't done him a ton of favors, but Bobrovksy's .900 save percentage and GSAA of -14.91 are not nearly good enough -- especially at the price that the Panthers are paying. He's capable of playing much better but has often struggled with inconsistency. Florida will likely only go as far as Bobrovsky can take them, and he'll be able to help erase the memories of a nightmare first season if he can find his best game when it matters most.
The Canadiens don't exactly have a playoff quality roster (or record, for that matter) and any chances of them making a run probably rest solely on the shoulders of Price. He's one of the most respected and recognizable goaltenders in the league but he hasn't exactly been elite for a few years now. He's posted a .909 save percentage and -1.31 GSAA behind a mediocre Habs defense this year and it'll probably take more than that to make up for what the rest of the roster lacks. If Montreal advances through the play-in round (or beyond) it'll be because Price looks like a younger version of himself.