What We Learned: Who are the NHL playoffs’ greatest role players?

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

All sports leagues rightly celebrate and promote their greatest players.

These athletes do things that transcend human excellence and capture the imaginations of fans all around the world with dazzling feats of skill. And they make up about five percent of the league. At most.

So what about the other 95 percent, the ones that scrape by on far lesser levels ability and, often, much greater quantities of will?

This year, perhaps moreso than in the past, those guys have been the ones making all the difference.

Take, for example, Joel Ward.

He's not exactly a household name. Not across the league. Not in Nashville. Maybe not even in his own house. He has 40 career goals in three seasons and has, understandably, been largely relegated to a support role, even if Nashville doesn't exactly have a Steven Stamkos or Sid Crosby on their roster. And of those 40 goals, just 10 came in 80 games this season.

But you sure wouldn't know it from these last few games. Since Game 2, he's crushed the Canucks for four goals and three assists in four games, ripping one-timers past an All-Everything goaltender in Roberto Luongo, and has been impossible for a star-studded Vancouver lineup to contain. Not bad for a guy who made his NHL debut at 26 after toiling for years in the Canadian college hockey ranks, usually one of the last stops on a former junior player's career.

Ward's seven goals in the playoffs? Currently tied for the league lead. Tied, by the way, with Sean Bergenheim, another guy who, with 29 points this season, wasn't exactly flying up anyone's Players-to-Watch list.

(Coming Up: Bieksa urges Canucks to stop diving; Yzerman hyperbole; Tyler Seguin time for Boston; still talking about Matt Cooke; Sean Avery and marriage equality; the Stars aren't moving, dummies; Radek Dvorak is delusional; Justin Williams on the mend (again); going Wild for Mac-T; the coolest goal of David Legwand's career; the Caps should trade Mike Green; and yes, an Iginla trade to the Leafs.)

Lately, Bergenheim's been nearly omnipresent around the crease, appearing with an assassin's stealth, depositing the puck into the back of the net with lethal precision, and returning once again to anonymity. You'd think that after he ended Pittsburgh's season with the lone goal in Game 7, Washington would have put a man on him. But nope, he just continued to materialize with the puck on his stick just in time for Michal Neuvirth to wave helplessly as it passed him.

But no Lightning role player has been more impressive than their starting goaltender, who would never make anyone's list of the top five or probably even 10 netminders in the league. But if you're looking for electrifying, stand-on-his-head performances this postseason, Dwayne Roloson has delivered them in bunches.

At something like 62 years old, he's won seven straight games, and not once registered a save percentage below .900 in any game. Currently, he's the league leader in both GAA and save percentage. And for all the press Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo get, neither is in the top-5 in either category.

Role players are also the only reason the Red Wings are even alive at this point.

Everyone figured the Sharks had them dead to rights as recently as Friday afternoon. And with big-time players like Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen nursing injuries that severely limited their effectiveness, it was Jonathan Ericsson and Danny Cleary who sparked last night's nearly-impossible comeback. San Jose lost just four games when leading through two periods all season, and hadn't done so at all in the playoffs.

Cleary, in particular, brought his game to a dizzyingly high level in the third period of Game 5, and it wasn't because he suddenly dug up some rich, untapped vein of skill or talent. He just put his head down and went hard to the net, thoroughly and repeatedly.

His first goal in the series tied the game and, though the tentacles were slowly tightening, made Detroit believe again.

You need guys like these on your team if you want to win in the playoffs. You need about a dozen of them. So while you're never going to see a promo about "Brad Marchand and the Bruins" taking on "Steve Downie and the Lightning," role players will always deserve a Cupload of credit.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks signed 25-year-old Finnish goalie Iiro Tarkki to a one-year deal, which apparently has very little to do with the fact that Jonas Hiller played two games after early February.

Atlanta Thrashers: Radek Dvorak wants to stay in Atlanta because he feels like the Thrashers can make the playoffs next year. Oh, Radek, I have some bad news for you.

Boston Bruins: Tyler Seguin will be in the lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, playing for Patrice Bergeron. But there is no way in hell they let him play center.

Buffalo Sabres: Terry Pegula jokingly suggested that players have rearview mirrors installed on their helmets to avoid legal hits. Every shift against Mike Richards would be like the scene in "Jurassic Park" where the jeep is being chased by the tyrannosaurus.

Calgary Flames: The Flames just might have a promising NHL prospect in Tim Erixon but don't hold your breath.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes and Charlotte Bobcats might play exhibition games in each other's buildings next year. The 'Canes would play the Thrashers, and the Bobcats would play the Miami Heat. Hmm if I'm a general sports fan in North Carolina, what do I shell out money to see? LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh or Jim Slater, Nik Antropov and Chris Thorburn. Decisions decisions.

Chicago Blackhawks: Chris Campoli had successful knee surgery earlier in the week. Doesn't explain the brain trauma he must have sustained seconds prior to that awful clearing attempt that Alex Burrows buried in overtime.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche can learn a lot from the Lightning? Sure. Hire a competent GM and an exceedingly brilliant coach. Should be easy. Get after it.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets are likely to play Marc Methot on the left side to make him effective again. All it took was another coach putting the defenseman on the ice to get Scott Arniel to see what a giant mistake he had made. But hey, it's not like the guy coaches him for like eight months out of the year or anything.

Dallas Stars: Apparently people thought the Stars might move? OK. Well they're not. Deal with it.

Detroit Red Wings: This just in: Nicklas Lidstrom is still an extremely effective player. AT AGE 41!!!!! Can you believe it? Why hasn't anyone mentioned this before?

Edmonton Oilers: "Oh my god, when that red light went on the first time, I was nervous. I was freaking out," said Ryan Whitney, shockingly not referring to playing in front of Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin for a whole season.

Florida Panthers: You know your team is terrible when you actually list Hugh Jessiman as being among the season's silver linings.

Los Angeles Kings: Justin Williams had successful shoulder surgery and should be good to go for training camp, which just seems impossibly far away right now and that makes me sad. Damn you Justin Williams, for having surgery that reminded me of a summer without hockey.

Minnesota Wild: Craig MacTavish is being seriously discussed as the Wild's next coach, which is an astonishingly good idea from an organization known for making decisions that are often quite the opposite.

Montreal Canadiens: "If you're handicapping the Montreal Canadiens unrestricted free-agent defence field on which guys they want to bring back, it's Andrei Markov, Hal Gill, James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara, in that order." This is the exact order in which they should be brought back. But there should also be a Hal Gill-Niagara Falls-sized drop-off from Wiz to Hamrlik.

Nashville Predators: This is maybe the coolest goal of David Legwand's career. Which says a lot about David Legwand's career if you think about it.

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New Jersey Devils: Apparently it was "classy" for the Devils to not give up when they were 29th in the league. Don't think too hard about how little sense that makes.

New York Islanders: It's looking like Doug Weight will retire. "As fans, we like tidy narratives that end well, "legacy" intact. Scenes like Willie Mays as a Met are forgotten." Hey, just like Doug Weight as an Islander!

New York Rangers: Sean Avery recorded a PSA in favor of gay marriage. What a good dude. Just please ignore that part about how he treats everyone with the respect he wants to receive. He meant off the ice.

Ottawa Senators: Eugene Melnyk has been banned from entering the boardrooms of any publicly traded companies for the next five years, prompting many Senators fans to hope their team becomes publicly traded tomorrow.

Philadelphia Flyers: This is all Peter Laviolette's fault, and definitely NOT Paul Holmgren's for thinking a team could succeed with two career backups and an unproven rookie. You're the worst, Lavy. Pack your things. You're out.

Phoenix Coyotes: The city of Glendale's fight to keep their Coyotes turned two years old yesterday, which is interesting, because it was "terrible" long before that.

Pittsburgh Penguins: "In hockey, where has the respect gone?" But what the article is actually about is that Matt Cooke got too many games in his most recent suspension. Yes, we're still talking about this. Really.

San Jose Sharks: Not to be a backseat driver or anything, but Patrick Marleau might want to show up for this series at some point. Did you even hear his name called in Game 5?

St. Louis Blues: Getting traded away from the Blues was the best thing that ever happened to Eric Brewer. But I'm sure you could say that about a lot of people.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steve Yzerman is great at being a GM. He is also great at overstating things. On the Crosby Olympic-winner: "[I]t was one goal, and it changed the course of sports history." Slow down, Steve.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Good news for the Leafs - If the Bruins advance to a Stanley Cup final, they send Toronto another second-round pick as part of the Kaberle trade.

Vancouver Canucks: Dear Vancouver Canucks, please stop diving. Love, Kevin Bieksa.

Washington Capitals: The Caps are going to consider trading everything that's not nailed down this summer. They should start with Mike Green, and give his minutes to John Carlson.

Gold Star Award

Joel Ward was fantastic on Saturday night. Just fantastic.

Minus of the Weekend

This hit from Claude Giroux only wouldn't have been late if it was using that slow-motion stuff from the Matrix.

Play of the Weekend

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This goal from Joel Ward was real nice. But the slap pass from Mike Fisher was just gorgeous.

Perfect HFBoards trade proposal of the week

User Bill Ladd has a "radical" idea.

To Calgary:

Philly's 1st
Boston's 1st
Joe Colborne OR Nazem Kadri

To Toronto:
Jarome Iginla

He also wants to move Iginla to center, then sign Alex Tanguay, so I'm assuming he didn't mean radical like, say, the Ninja Turtles did.

A California Cheeseburger!

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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