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 Western Conference, from Chicago to Vancouver.
Chicago Blackhawks: Really, every team's goalie should be its X-Man. After all, nobody controls a game's outcome like the netminders. If they play well, they usually win; if they play poorly, they almost always lose.
But the 'Hawks are taking it to a whole new level with the decision to go with first-year NHLer Antti Niemi(notes) over veteran Cristobal Huet(notes). Niemi started Chicago 's final nine games of the regular season and finished the year with an impressive 26-8-3 record as well as a goals-against average (2.25) that was among the top five in the league.
That's all well and good, of course, but it's what Niemi does in the postseason that matters. The 26-year-old Finnish native, who's about a month too old to qualify as an NHL rookie, had a six-game win streak snapped when Chicago lost to Detroit in overtime on the final day of the season. The 'Hawks have a stacked team up front and on the blueline, but their Stanley Cup hopes will hinge on whether Niemi can carry over his regular season success into the spring.
Colorado Avalanche: An x-factor on the Avs? Close your eyes and pick a player. No other team in the NHL has gotten more mileage out of its rookies (especially forwards Matt Duchene(notes), T.J. Galiardi(notes) and Ryan O'Reilly(notes)), not to mention pleasant surprises such as Chris Stewart's(notes) team-leading 28 goals and Peter Mueller's(notes) nine goals and 20 points in 15 games since being obtained from Phoenix at the trade deadline.
Meanwhile, the Avs' quiet and unassuming linchpin, Paul Stastny(notes), turned in another point-per-game campaign (79 points in 80 games). The future looks bright in Colorado , but perhaps a player with a bit of a past can lead the way when the going gets rough in the playoffs.
Veteran winger Darcy Tucker(notes) hasn't been in the postseason since 2004, so you know the 35-year-old agitator will have plenty of motivation. Plus, five of his 10 goals this season came in Colorado 's final 13 games; maybe he's finding his scoring touch just when it matters the most.
Detroit Red Wings: Like their Original Six opponent in the Central Division, Chicago, the Wings are riding a 26-year-old goalie into the postseason. Jimmy Howard(notes) – who, unlike, Niemi, is eligible for the Calder Trophy and figures to be one of the three finalists – was in the minors forever before finally getting his chance this season.
After a slow start in October, he stepped into the breach when veteran Chris Osgood(notes) faltered and hasn't looked back. The fact remains, though, that Osgood was a stellar performer for the Wings in the past two postseasons as Detroit advanced to back-to-back Cup finals, winning in 2008.
It's a lot to ask of Howard to deliver the same caliber of play in his first postseason appearance. But that's how it goes in Hockeytown, where anything less than the Cup is considered a disappointment.
Los Angeles Kings: Justin Williams(notes) is 28 years old and a two-time 30-goal scorer with Carolina in 2005-06 and '06-07 (and he also scored seven goals and 18 points in 25 playoff games during Carolina 's '06 Cup championship). In short, he should be in his prime.
Since those glory days in Carolina, however, Williams has had a bad run of injuries, including missing 28 games with a broken right leg this season. He returned from that setback on March 12 and was slow to regain his form, collecting just one assist in his first 10 games. When the calendar changed to April, though, Williams started to pick it up, with two goals and four points in six contests.
Phoenix Coyotes: Like Colorado, Phoenix is a team of x-factors. But none wear the label as proudly as Lee Stempniak(notes), the undersized winger whom Phoenix acquired from Toronto in an afterthought of a trade deadline move.
Fourteen goals in 18 games later, Stempniak has found his niche as a go-to goal-scorer on a team that was desperate for offense. Only four full-time Phoenix players scored more than Stempniak's 14 goals as a Coyote.
San Jose Sharks: First things first – Joe Thornton(notes) and Evgeni Nabokov(notes) aren't eligible to be X-Men. They're too established and, simply put, too good (at least in the regular season). And while neither stepped up in last year's first-round loss to Anaheim, it's not fair to pin all the blame on them, either.
Fact is, San Jose 's secondary scoring was a non-entity; if Thornton or Patrick Marleau(notes) (who played through an injury last spring) didn't score, nobody did. The Shark with most playoff upside is bruising winger Ryane Clowe(notes); he's capable of 25 goals and 60 points if his physical play ever allowed him to stay healthy for a complete campaign.
If San Jose can get consistent production – and better yet, a foreboding presence – from Clowe, the Sharks might actually be in the mix this postseason.
Vancouver Canucks: He's not big, he's not physical, he's often been in the coach's doghouse and he can be invisible for long stretches. But Kyle Wellwood(notes) also has a sublime skill set, his hockey sense is second to none and he proved in last year's playoffs that he can elevate his play and be a responsible, two-way performer.
After coming to camp in the best shape of his career, the undersized Wellwood had a rough first half, not scoring his first goal of the season until Game 20. Fortunately, he's woken up and has collected seven goals since the Olympics. Vancouver 's secondary scoring gets a big boost of Wellwood finds his groove.