The regular season matters - until it doesn't matter.
The 82-game marathon is rapidly coming to its end, and the real season is right around the corner. For decades, the playoffs have been the true indicator of a player's character, ability, and value to a franchise.
Some players are regular season phenoms, only to fade away when the games begin to matter more. Others leave the light switch off for vast stretches between September and March, only to find it and flip it come April, May, and (hopefully) June.
Legacies are built during the regular season, but they are fortified during the playoffs. The greatest players in league history all had phenomenal career numbers, but it's their playoff success that truly defines them during their career, and perhaps even more years after it is over.
We've seen plenty of breakout performances throughout the 2014-2015 campaign; from promising rookie campaigns, remarkable comeback performances and the odd surprise along the way, there has been no shortage of greatness since the puck dropped in early October.
None of it will matter in a few short weeks. The slate is wiped clean, and it goes without saying that an 85-point season will be forgotten if a first-round loss is accompanied by a barren statline.
The following players might be not be the key cog in their team's Stanley Cup runs. They are more likely to be the "missing piece" that most teams lack during a long run, the surprise performance from an unexpected source that not only helps a team get over the hump, but also puts the player on the league's radar as a bonafide playoff performer for years to come.
*All stats are taken from NHL.com and are correct as of March 24th, 2015.
15 On the Bubble
The following players' teams aren't guaranteed to make it to the dance, but if they do they're the guys to keep an eye on.
Tyler Toffoli, Los Angeles Kings: Toffoli has shown flashes of his immense talent over the last two playoff runs. He chipped in 14 points in 26 games during the Kings playoff run last spring, and if the Kings find a way back into the postseason this year, he'll be a guy opponents will have to key in on.
Kyle Turris, Ottawa Senators: Turris has only had a crack at the postseason three times during his eight-year career. He performed quite well two years ago, putting up 9 points in 10 games, but if Ottawa gets in this year, he'll be called upon to shoulder the load. A good playoff showing would solidify his reputation as a top-line center.
Carl Soderberg, Boston Bruins: Soderberg was solid during his first real taste of playoff hockey last season, with 6 points in 12 games. His role has continued to grow in Beantown, so if Boston can squeeze in, they'll need Soderberg at his best - they can't only rely on a rusty David Krejci and an inexperienced Ryan Spooner up the middle.
14 Keith Yandle, New York Rangers
Keith Yandle was released from hockey purgatory almost a month ago now, and while it has taken him time to adjust to the bright lights of the big city, it looks like Yandle is rounding into top form. That bodes well for the Rangers, who will have to be thinking Cup-or-bust this spring. Yandle has playoff experience from the few decent years the Coyotes have had recently, and has an impressive 19 points in 27 games, but on a loaded team Yandle should be able to improve those numbers drastically.
13 Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
In a few short years, Vladimir Tarasenko has gone from an unknown quantity to one of the most lethal snipers in the league. He's broken out this season with 35 goals (and counting), and there's no reason to believe he can't keep that pace going through what the Blues hope will finally be the long run they've been expected to have for awhile now. Tarasenko had four goals in the Blues six first-round games last spring, so he's shown he can handle the intensified pace.
12 Antoine Vermette, Chicago Blackhawks
Like Yandle, Vermette was freed from the cellar of the NHL to a legitimate Cup contender. While he hasn't fully latched on in Chicago just yet, Stan Bowman didn't acquire him to play marginal minutes on the third line. He'll find his stride soon, and when he does the offensive numbers will begin to pile up. He hasn't suited up for a playoff game in nearly three years, but his last time out he picked up 10 points in 16 games. Expect better numbers if the Hawks get out of the first round.
11 Nino Niederreiter, Minnesota Wild
It's taken Nino Niederreiter longer than expected to turn into a productive NHLer, but he's seemingly turned the corner in Minnesota. Niederreiter is not the focal point of the Wild offense, but he'll be called upon to provide timely scoring during the postseason. He picked up 6 points in 13 games last spring - with his first taste of playoff hockey out of the way, "El Niño" has no reason not to breakout this time around.
10 Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks
Jakob Silfverberg has been a pleasant surprise offensively this season, posting a respectable 35 points while playing relatively limited minutes. Silfverberg is the kind of player that can catch fire for Anaheim this spring and help shoulder the offensive load during a long playoff run. He hasn't been overly productive in his three cracks at the postseason thus far (6 points in 25 games), so the time is now for Silfverberg to step up.
9 Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
Roman Josi is the best defenseman no one knows about - that's not fair, since he's gained notoriety over the past couple of years as people finally started to see the magnificent talent of the man constantly hidden by Shea Weber's massive shadow. Josi's first playoff experience was nothing to write home about - he was pointless in 10 games, a mediocre -4 and was only playing 18 minutes a game. Today's version of Josi is averaging almost 27 minutes a game and has already picked up 51 points this year - expect Josi to further establish himself as a force this spring.
8 Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens
Alex Galchenyuk was unlucky last season, as he got injured near the end of the year and only got back into the Habs lineup during the Eastern Conference Finals. He made an immediate impact, scoring the overtime winner in a pivotal Game 3 of the series the Habs ended up losing. Barring more bad luck, Galchenyuk should finally get a crack at a full playoff run, and the Habs will need him to bring his best if they hope to have another long spring.
7 Nick Bonino, Vancouver Canucks
Nick Bonino has (somewhat) surprisingly become a solid, reliable source for offense in Vancouver, and has filled in for Ryan Kesler quite nicely. Eventually Bo Horvat will hold down a spot on one of the top two lines, but for now it's Bonino's show. The Canucks will be looking to Bonino to improve upon last year's playoff performance, when he racked up 8 points in 13 games with the Ducks. So far this season, he's had 31 points in 65 games.
6 Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames
Sean Monahan is on this list for no other reason other than the fact that he has been spectacular for the Flames this season. The second-year center has turned into one of the leagues best two-way centers and at only 20 years old the sky's the limit for Monahan. If the Flames can hold on down the stretch, Monahan is primed for a big playoff performance and could be the key cog in what once seemed like an improbable Flames playoff run. He has no playoff experience, but his 55 points this season give us an indication of what's to come.
5 John Carlson, Washington Capitals
John Carlson has slowly but surely begun to establish himself as one of the league's top blueliners, and he's progressed even further under new head coach Barry Trotz. He's having the best season of his career as the undisputed number one defenseman in Washington, and primed to finally improve his less than stellar playoff numbers (13 points in 37 games, -1).
4 Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins
Patric Hornqvist was brought in to add some depth and scoring touch to the top line in Pittsburgh, and overall it's gone well for the 28 year-old Swede. With 45 points in 56 games this year, he's seemed to fit in quite nicely along either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Hornqvist has no reason not to improve his dismal playoff numbers (8 points in 24 games and a plus/minus of -3) playing alongside one (or both) of those two.
3 John Tavares, New York Islanders
John Tavares has been patient, and he stuck with the Islanders through some tough years. The Isles got a taste of the postseason two springs ago, so he must be chomping at the bit to get another crack at it - a legitimate crack at it, no less. The Isles are no longer the pushovers of years past and will be a tough out this spring. If Tavares had the season he's heaving in a year without Carey Price, he'd likely be the MVP. Tavares had 5 points in the only playoff series he's ever participated in - expect that number to rise significantly this year.
2 Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings
Tomas Tatar gets bumped on the list thanks to the fact that he gets to play on a team that hasn't missed the playoffs in over twenty years. The Red Wings know how to handle business come April, and Tatar will be slotted in the RW hole alongside either Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg. Don't be surprised if Tatar goes on a Mike Cammalleri-like scoring run during the postseason. He's having a career year, and while last season's playoff performance was a major disappointment, he'll bounce back nicely this time around.
1 Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning
Whether it was blind luck or good scouting, we'll probably never know, but somehow the Tampa Bay Lightning landed yet another superstar-in-the-making that happened to be an undrafted free-agent. Johnson has been an offensive force for the Lightning this season and is tied with Steven Stamkos for the team's scoring lead with 66 points. He picked up two points in last year's first-round exit to the Habs, so expect Johnson to put up much higher totals this time.