They're underrated, under-the-radar or at least undervalued. They're the NHL's Playoff X-Men, the players with the potential to rise up in the postseason and win a series, maybe even a Stanley Cup, while the rest of the hockey world marvels at their unanticipated impact.
Here are eight potential Playoff X-Men in the Eastern Conference, from Boston to Washington.
Boston Bruins: Left winger Milan Lucic(notes) is a monster, and a fine example of the x-factor player who can take over a playoff series. He hits, he scores, he fights, he intimidates; in short, his style of play perfectly suits the ramped-up intensity of the postseason.
And he's still just 21 years old. Like the rest of the Bruins, however, Lucic has struggled through an injury-plagued, mostly forgettable season. After an encouraging 17-goal, 42-point effort in 2008-09, Lucic was limited to nine goals and 19 points in 49 games this year, and he hasn't been the dominating physical presence that had Bruins fans gleefully comparing him to Cam Neely.
Blame the busted finger that cost him 14 games early in the season and the severely twisted ankle that sat him for another 18 contests at mid-season. The good news is, he scored in Boston 's final regular season contest and goes into the playoffs on a three-game point streak. But this guy isn't about the points anyway; he's about the bravado and space he provides to his teammates.
Buffalo Sabres: There's no way Thomas Vanek(notes) should be on this list. The Austrian-born sniper is much too skilled. However, a free-fall to 27 goals after seasons of 43, 36 and 40 means that Vanek came up way short of expectations in 2009-10.
He's a pure shooter, a natural-born goal-scorer who should be challenging Sidney Crosby(notes), Alex Ovechkin(notes) and Steven Stamkos(notes) for the NHL goal lead rather than the Derek Roy(notes) and Jason Pominville(notes) for the local Buffalo honors.
Will he wake up in time to help the Sabres' playoff run? Well, after missing six games with a groin injury, Vanek returned for the season finale and scored four goals (by the end of the second period) against Washington in a 5-2 Buffalo victory. He might be getting hot at the right time.
Montreal Canadiens: Ask anyone about the Habs' forwards and you'll start hearing words like "small" and "undersized." It's enough to give a team a complex … a little one, anyway.
Never mind that Moen has but one goal since Dec. 16; instead, remember the seven playoff goals he scored for Anaheim during the Ducks' charge to the Stanley Cup in 2007. That's why Montreal signed Moen last summer: for his experience, his grit, his leadership and the fact he uses all of his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame.
Like Lucic, Clarkson hits, fights and intimidates, and even chips in on the scoresheet semi-regularly. And, like Lucic, Clarkson missed nearly half of the 2009-10 season due to injuries.
When he's been healthy, though, Clarkson has been an impact player, figuratively and literally, contributing 11 goals and 24 points in 45 games, not to mention 85 penalty minutes. That's pretty good for a third-liner on the defensively inclined Devils.
Ottawa Senators: Matt Cullen(notes), obtained from Carolina at the trade deadline, is a big body who can play center or on the wing. He can score goals, win faceoffs and man the point on the power play.
Considering the Sens are without Alexei Kovalev and that Milan Michalek(notes) just returned from a leg injury that threatened to sideline him for the rest of the season, Cullen will get ample ice time and opportunity in Ottawa.
And speaking of playoffs, Giroux was Philadelphia's best player – as a rookie, no less – in the '09 postseason, scoring two goals and five points in a six-game, first-round ouster at the hands of rival Pittsburgh. Plus, Giroux is the center who was promoted to the second line when Jeff Carter(notes) got hurt.
Carter returned to duty at the end of the regular season, but he's not 100 percent and Giroux will continue to get a lot of ice time and skilled linemates.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Any team that boasts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Jordan Staal(notes) down the middle figures to have the happiest wingers in the world. Yet, the only Penguins winger to crack 20 goals was 39-year-old Bill Guerin(notes), with 21.
For whatever reason, mid-level wingers such as Chris Kunitz(notes), Ruslan Fedotenko(notes) and Pascal Dupuis(notes) have never gelled with their superlative centers. So, the latest hired-gun winger is Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes), obtained from Toronto at the deadline. The early returns haven't been promising – two goals, nine points and a minus-6 rating in 16 games – and Ponikarovsky has never been known as Mr. Clutch.
But he just turned 30, he's entering unrestricted free agency this summer for the first time, and he's got Malkin as his center. The 6-foot-4 winger has a chance to do something big.
Washington Capitals: On a team of A-listers, people are waiting to write a big 'X' on Washington 's defense corps and goaltending. Fair enough; it's in the playoffs, after all, where defensive cohesion and netminding brilliance usually overcome offensive excellence.
The Capitals appear as though they're ready to put that theory to the test like no team since the '80s Oilers (or 2009 Penguins), but Washington still needs to keep the puck out of its own net.
Last year, Jose Theodore(notes) lost Game 1 to the Rangers and never saw the ice again. He gets another opportunity to prove he's still got some of that 2002 Hart Trophy magic in him, and the fact he goes up against his old team, Montreal , provides plenty of motivation.