The Pittsburgh Penguins capped off one of the most surprising finals we've seen in a long while with a 4-2 series win against the San Jose Sharks. Washington, Dallas, and Chicago were all considered heavy favorites going in and all of them were eliminated before the semifinals. But as we all know, if sports went as expected all the time, it would be quite boring.
It is insanely hard to predict the playoffs in any sport. The game changes when you get to the postseason. Everything you learned in the regular season can be thrown out the window. The stakes become much higher and every move each athlete makes is viewed under a microscope. Some talented players disappear under the pressure and have their reputations ruined as a result. But others excel; and those that do quickly find themselves becoming household names.
This year's Stanley Cup playoffs were no different in that regard. Many players just finished up some of the best hockey of their careers; much to the surprise of their fans and opponents. Things like this are what make the sport so thrilling to watch.
Here are the top 15 players that stepped up under the pressure and performed at a level well beyond what anyone saw coming.
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15 Petr Mrazek
At only 23 years old, Mrazek is certainly making a name for himself very quickly. He was impressive in very limited action in his first three years and got a much larger role this season as a result. He showed that his previous success wasn't just a fluke when he finished with a .921 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average.
But even still, he only had 83 starts on his career heading into the playoffs. Detroit understandably felt more comfortable giving the goal to long-time starter Jimmy Howard.
Unfortunately that was a mistake and Mrazek took over after poor back-to-back performances. In the next three games he gave up only four goals and posted a .945 SV% and 1.88 GAA. It's not often that inexperienced goaltenders put up post season numbers like that.
It's a shame that we didn't get to see Mrazek play the entire series but it's certainly going to be fun watching him in the years to come.
14 Stephen Johns
Stephen Johns was acquired by the Stars along with Patrick Sharp this past summer. While regarded as a solid prospect, he failed to make the roster at the beginning of the year.
Johns didn't get his first bit of NHL action until the tail end of the 2016 season. He impressed both the fans and the management; playing well enough to keep his roster spot into the postseason. The team was cautious with him, but he did not disappoint them.
Johns understood that the best way for him to make an impact was to help his team win the battle physically. That appeared to be his goal the entire time he was on the ice and he got it done.
He didn't get a ton of ice time, just shy of 15 minutes a game, but he made the absolute most of every second that he got. It's a certainty that the opposition learned his name very quickly.
13 Nikita Kucherov
Nikita Kucherov was expected to have a good postseason. He was a former second round pick who has been in the league for three years. Over the past two he has combined for 131 points as well as 59 goals. He quickly became one of the team's most productive players after breaking into the NHL.
However Nikita Kucherov didn't just have a good postseason; he had an elite-level postseason. He finished second in postseason goals despite playing seven games fewer than many other players, including several established superstars. His 19 points in 17 games was the best on his team and among the best point/game ratios this postseason.
What's more surprising is that Kucherov is coming off an excellent 2015 playoff performance. He had very high expectations and still managed to exceed all of them by quite a bit. You can bet Lightning fans are going to enjoy watching this guy progress over the next several years.
12 Robby Fabbri
Robby Fabbri had a solid first season, finishing with 18 goals and 37 points over 72 games. This put him in the top 10 among all rookies in scoring as well as seventh on the Blues.
Typically, it's much harder to produce in the playoffs; especially for rookies, due to the heightened competition and immense pressure it often takes players a couple years before they seem comfortable in postseason play.
Fabbri blew away the executions. His teammate, Vladimir Tarasenko, has been one of the NHL's elite forwards over the past two years; scoring 77 goals and 147 points over that period. Fabbri managed to tie him in scoring despite only playing 14 minutes a game on average, over three minutes fewer than Tarasenko.
Fabbri's regular season was a good year for a rookie forward. His post season performance was outstanding, period. Few players prove themselves this early in their careers. Blues' fans should be ecstatic about Fabbri moving forward.
11 John Carlson
John Carlson has been a solid offensive-defenseman throughout his career. He has averaged about 35 points a season over his career, including 55 in 2014-15. Those are good numbers for a defenseman, but nowhere near elite.
As a player with seven years under his belt, including 51 playoff games, he was expected to continue roughly at that pace once the playoffs began. Of course, that isn't what happened. Rather, there were times this postseason where he looked like Erik Karlsson, particularly against Philadelphia. Over the course of the playoffs he recorded 12 points in 12 games. Among defensemen, he finished fourth in scoring despite playing significantly fewer games than everyone else ahead of him. Kris Letang finished second in scoring among defensemen, but played nearly twice as many games has Carlson. Even still, he only managed three more points.
Washington went with the hot hand and gave him nearly 27 minutes of ice time per game, well above his career average. He earned every minute of that.
10 Nick Bonino
Nick Bonino got his first shot in the NHL in 2009 with the Ducks. He didn't accomplish anything notable until the 2013-14 season where he notched a career high 49 points.
Anaheim assumed that he wouldn't be able to replicate this production moving forward and elected not to bring him back. It was the right call. Over the past three years Bonino has played with three different teams. Each year his production has declined sharply.
Somehow he found a level of play in this year's postseason that he's never demonstrated on the NHL level at any point in his career. He finished with 18 points in 24 games; a stat line that had him tied with Evgeni Malkin as the team's third highest postseason scorer.
If you told someone three months ago that Nick Bonino and Evengi Malkin would finish the postseason with the same amount of points, they would assume that Malkin suffered a serious injury and missed most of the games.
9 Michal Neuvirth
It's hard to give a player a lot of credit for their performance when they only played three games. Michal Neuvirth didn't take over the starting role from Steve Mason until Philadelphia was already down 3-0 in the series. But for a moment, it looked like he was going to carry the Flyers on his back all the way to the next round.
Unfortunately for the team and their fans, it didn't work out like that. They fell in game six, but at no fault of Neuvirth. In three games he gave up two goals. He finished with an unbelievable .981 save percentage and .67 goals against average.
Neuvirth first got a chance in the NHL during the 2008-09 season. In that time, he has established himself clearly as a fringe starter; nothing more. This type of play, even in a limited amount, was completely out of the blue.
8 Colin Wilson
Despite being a top ten selection in 2008, Colin Wilson has had a rather unimpressive NHL career. He didn't manage to exceed 40 points until the 2014-15 season. At that point, some believed he was just a late bloomer. Unfortunately he quickly regressed in this past season; scoring only six goals and 24 points in 64 games.
But this postseason he showed off the talent that made him such a high pick. He produced 13 points in 14 games; easily leading the Predators in scoring. In second place was Superstar defenseman Roman Josi, who had nine.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Wilson at this point. What he did this year in the post season was incredible, and it came after a very lackluster regular season. The Predators and their fans will spend the entire offseason wondering if this was just a fluke or if he's finally turned a corner.
7 Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop was a large unknown when Tampa Bay acquired him midway through the 2012-13 season. He had only a handful of starts under his belt but looked promising.
Taking a chance on the young player paid off in spades. He's been a rock in goal for the Lightning for the past few years, even leading the league in goals against average in 2015-16. Everyone knew going into the playoffs that Bishop was a good goalie.
However, no one could have reasonably predicted his unbelievable postseason production. He finished the playoffs with a .939 save percentage and 1.86 GAA, leading his team to a semifinal appearance - a series that came down to the wire.
This year's playoffs had no lack of great goaltending play. However, don't mistake Ben Bishop's play for being anything less than remarkable. He stepped up and did everything you could ask of a goaltender and more.
6 Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel has always been a standout player in the NHL. However, Kessel didn't just stand out over the past couple months, he played like a Superstar. There were more than a few who believed he deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy and they have a good case for it.
In the regular season he finished a distant third on the team in scoring with 59 points in 82 games - and he only beat out Malkin by a single point despite playing 25 more games. Over the course of the playoffs he solidly beat out everyone on the team. His total of 22 points in 24 games was three more than Crosby and four more than Malkin. In addition, it was good for the fourth best in the NHL.
Being the most productive playoff performer on a Stanley cup winning team featuring Crosby and Malkin is not an easy thing to do.
5 Jonathan Drouin
Everyone is familiar with all the drama that took place mid season regarding the Lightning and Jonathan Drouin. Long story short, he was punished for missing a meeting earlier in the year. He was then sent down to the AHL where he refused to play and then requested a trade. At that point, it looked like his days in Tampa Bay were over.
But as it turns out, not only did he return but he absolutely lit it up in the playoffs. Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson were the only players on the team to outscore him. In 17 playoff games, he recorded five goals and 14 points. Compared to his regular season where he scored four goals and 10 points in 21 games.
At one point recently, many thought he was a lost cause for the team. The idea that he was going to come back and excel in the playoffs was a pipe dream. But here we are.
4 Frederik Andersen
Despite finishing on top of their division, Anaheim went out in the opening round. Of the many players to blame for that, Frederik Andersen is not one of them. The young goaltender did absolutely everything he could to carry his team to the next round.
Over five games he posted a .947 save percentage and 1.41 goals against average. Both of those stats led the league among goalies with significant time. Andersen stood out in a postseason that had no lack of outstanding goaltending performances.
Anaheim has a lot of depth at the position and as a result there has been a lot of trade speculation surrounding Andersen throughout the season. After proving himself as a player that can not only perform, but excel in the playoffs, it's hard to imagine the team looking to move on from him. Players like that are worth their weight in gold in the NHL.
3 Martin Jones
Martin Jones was a player with a lot of questions going into the season. He had a combined 34 games of NHL experience before being acquired in a deal involving the Sharks first round pick.
He proved to be a more than capable goaltender over the course of the regular season, posting a .918 SV% and 2.27 GAA. But as most fans already know, the regular season and the post season are very different. Young players who excel in the regular season are still expected to have a steep learning curve once the playoffs begin. But Jones proved himself once again as he carried his team forward. At times, he was clearly the best player on the ice.
Every year there are many players that have a ton of unproven potential. Every fan likes to imagine and expect the best case scenario but it almost never works out like that. Martin Jones is one of the few that has.
2 Logan Couture
Going into the playoffs everyone knew that Logan Couture was a good player. He has six full years of NHL experience and has consistently hit the 60 point mark. He was on pace to do so again this year but missed a fair bit of time and understandably fell short.
Couture is not considered one of the NHL's elite forwards yet, but after the playoffs this year many are going to begin to rethink that. He led the league in postseason scoring and it wasn't even close. He ended with an insane 30 points in 24 games; six more than teammate Brent Burns who finished in second place.
What's makes this all even more impressive is that he accomplished this against many of the NHL's best defenses - St. Louis, Nashville, and Los Angeles. This may mark the point on Couture's career where he makes the leap from good to great.
1 Matt Murray
Nobody else could have been the number one selection here. Matt Murray is 22 years old and had exactly 13 NHL games under his belt before the playoffs began. Expecting a highly inexperienced goaltender to lead a team to a Stanley Cup victory is something that even the most biased fan couldn't predict. But it's exactly what happened.
Murray took over the starting role two games in to Pittsburgh's opening series against the Rangers. He led the team to three straight decisive victories; claiming the series in five games. From there he never looked back.
Murray nearly doubled his NHL experience over the course of the playoffs. He posted a 15 wins, .923 save percentage, and 2.08 goals against average. These are outstanding numbers, and he recorded them against some of the best rosters the NHL has to offer.
His career just began and he's already accomplished something that many of NHL's most highly regarded goaltenders have yet to do.
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