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Meet some unsung beasts of the East

Friday, 05.01.2009 / 9:47 AM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Semifinals

NHL.com

Who are going to be this spring's versions of John Druce and Chris Kontos?

Every year, unlikely Stanley Cup Playoff heroes emerge, as Chris Kontos of the Los Angeles Kings did in 1989 when he scored nine goals in 11 playoff games to help the Kings dethrone the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in the opening round.

Or, as Washington Capitals right wing John Druce, who had only 26 points in 93 regular-season games and had appeared in only one playoff game prior to the 1990 postseason, did when he led his team in scoring and ranked second among NHL goal scorers with 14 goals and 17 points in 15 playoff games.

Through the opening round of the 2009 playoffs, NHL.com has identified four early candidates from the Eastern Conference.

Dennis Wideman, Boston Bruins --
The Bell Centre was roaring and the Boston Bruins were reeling for the first -- and, as it turned out, only -- time in their first round series with the Montreal Canadiens.

Christopher Higgins' goal seven minutes earlier had given the Habs their first lead in the series and Game 3 was beginning to look like the one that just might turn this into yet another Bruins heartbreaker in the long-running Montreal-Boston playoffs saga. Then Dennis Wideman stepped up.

With one Montreal forward coming at him, another sneaking behind him and Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek in firm possession while readying a breakout pass, Wideman decided to hold his left point position a moment longer before beating a discretionary retreat. Because he did, Wideman was able to pounce on Komisarek's errant pass and make an instantaneous shot/pass that Phil Kessel redirected home for the tying goal with 1:25 left in the first period that hit the entire Bell Centre like a sledge hammer.

The Bruins would go on to win that series-cementing Game 3 -- with Wideman playing major minutes in a smothering, lead-protecting third period -- en route to the sweep that has now has them facing the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. They do so not only with man-mountain Zdeno Chara and grizzled playoff veterans Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference on their blue line, but with a 26-year-old Wideman, whose confidence is soaring one year after he admittedly was a bit overwhelmed making his NHL postseason debut.

"I went from being too excited to then trying to control my emotions too much later on the series," Wideman said of his work in Boston's seven-game first round loss to Montreal in 2008. "I don't think I found that balance that you need in the playoffs."

He found it in the Bruins-Canadiens rematch this year. Marrying positional discipline in his own end of the ice to the offensive ability he's always displayed, Wideman was rewarded by Boston coach Claude Julien with 22:38 of ice time per game -- only Chara logged more.

His four assists in four games weren't surprising. But his decision-making in just his seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th career playoff games probably opened a few skeptical eyes. And his poise on that pivotal play in Game 3 was more akin to that of a Brian Leetch or a Scott Niedermayer than a skittish young defenseman.

"I really liked his composure," Julien said. "At one point, they were really forechecking us hard and it would have been easy for him, and a lot of our 'D' for that matter, to just to take the puck and rim it along the boards. (The Canadiens) were pinching along the boards and it would have been turnover after turnover. Dennis was so calm, he skated with it, took that extra second to make a good pass."

Mark Eaton, Pittsburgh Penguins --
He's the quintessential stay-at-home defenseman. So it made perfect sense that Mark Eaton, who grew up close to Philadelphia in Wilmington, Delaware, as the son of Pittsburgh-reared parents, found himself in the middle of a Flyers-Penguins playoff series the last two weeks.

What defied logic was Eaton's presence deep in the enemy slot early in the second period of last Saturday's Game 6 of the teams' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal -- though not what he did once he unexpectedly arrived there. The former high school baseball star found the equivalent of a belt-high, hanging curveball -- a floating rebound of a Tyler Kennedy shot -- and he batted it back past Martin Biron to cut what once was a 3-0 Philly lead to 3-2.

"He's the guy who's always blocking a lot of shots for us, playing on the [penalty kill] situation. He's there for us when we need him. We don't expect him to be Sidney Crosby."
-- Penguins Sergei Gonchar on teammate Mark Eaton

The Pens would go on to win that game and finish off the Flyers, with Eaton returning to his more accustomed role of blocking shots, clogging passing lanes and generally providing the kind of ultra-reliable work on defense that wins games while escaping the spotlight's glare.

"He's the guy who's always blocking a lot of shots for us, playing on the [penalty kill] situation," said Sergei Gonchar, who often pairs with Eaton at even strength. "He's there for us when we need him. We don't expect him to be Sidney Crosby."

Fact is, the Penguins spent all of last season and much of this one waiting for Eaton to simply return to being Mark Eaton -- at least, the version who established himself as a rock-solid defenseman for Nashville in 2003-04 and 2005-06, prompting Pittsburgh to sign him as a free agent.

Major knee injuries robbed Eaton of significant chunks of his first two seasons with the Pens -- and kept him out of the club's entire run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago. The lingering rink rust kept him from staying in the lineup more than a few games at a time over the first half of this season.

Once he finally got his legs back under him and regained his form, Eaton resumed his place as a lineup mainstay. As a result, he wound up blocking 148 shots in just 68 games -- the league's fifth best total for any player who did not appear in at least 70 games.

That steady work continued through the series with the Flyers, as Eaton blocked 12 shots in six games while playing to a plus-3 rating. But Eaton couldn't completely avoid the spotlight: Even before he scored that put-back goal in Game 6, he had pumped home a shot from the blue line in Game 1 for his first career playoff goal.

 
Simeon Varlamov, Washington Capitals -- Seventeen years before Washington rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov was born, Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut with only six games of NHL regular-season experience under his belt.

Like Dryden, Varlamov had played in only six NHL games before making his playoff debut April 18. Like Dryden, the Capitals' 21-year-old Russian backstopped his team to a first-round series victory. Only time will tell whether Varlamov can emulate Dryden's ultimate achievement from 1971 -- winning the Stanley Cup while capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP.

Tapped as the starter for Game 2 after a shaky performance by Jose Theodore in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers on the opening night of the postseason, Varlamov helped the Capitals post their first playoff series victory since advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 by going 4-2 with a 1.17 goals-against average, .952 save percentage and two shutouts. He ranked second to Vancouver's Roberto Luongo in goals-against average, third behind Luongo and Anaheim's Jonas Hiller in save percentage and tied with Hiller for the League shutout lead.

Varlamov spent most of this season with the Hershey Bears, the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate, compiling a 19-7-1 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He even has the Bears logo on half of his helmet with the Caps logo on the other half.

"I had seen him play in Hershey a few games this year and I had seen him play for us and played really well for us, so I had the comfortability that he would be OK," Boudreau said when asked why he had so much confidence in turning to Varlamov for Game 2, arguably the most important coaching decision of his NHL career. "We're talking two games, but I had a lot of faith in him."

A lot of that faith has to do with Varlamov's past. He did well in his brief audition against NHL competition in the 2008-09 regular season, going 4-0-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average in six appearances. He also posted a 1.62 GAA and five shutouts in 16 playoff games last year with Yaroslavl in the Russian Elite League, and was 5-1 with a 1.51 GAA and two shutouts for Russia at the 2007 World Junior Championship.

Jussi Jokinen, Carolina Hurricanes --
When the Carolina acquired Jussi Jokinen from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 7 in exchange for Wade Brookbank, Josef Melichar and a fourth-round pick in 2009, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford knew they were acquiring a shootout specialist and a forward that would give them depth down the stretch in their fight for a playoff spot.

Carolina Hurricanes Playoff GearWhat he did not know was that the Hurricanes were adding a player who would soon make history -- not once, but twice -- in a dramatic Stanley Cup Playoffs opening-round series victory.

Trailing the Devils 2-1 in the series and having squandered a three-goal lead on home ice in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against New Jersey, Jokinen scored with 0.2 seconds left in regulation time -- the latest game-deciding goal in NHL history -- as the Hurricanes posted a 4-3 win and knotted the series at two games.

Seven days later, he was at it again. With Carolina trailing the Devils 3-2 late in Game 7, Jokinen's game-tying goal at 18:40 of the third period sparked the miracle comeback that culminated in Eric Staal's series-winning strike at 19:28. It marked the latest time a team had trailed in a Game 7 and prevailed in regulation time.

Prior to the 2009 playoffs, Jokinen was probably best known for his legendary performances in shootouts with a career record of 22-for-41 (53.7 percent), including seven game-deciding goals.

"Jussi is a skilled, two-positional player that will give us depth, whether at wing or center," Rutherford said at the time of the trade. "He can play in all situations. He can help kill penalties, he can play the power play, he has had success in shootouts. He's an experienced NHL player, a young player coming into his prime. He should be a good addition for us."
Quote of the Day

I think Loui Eriksson is a player that can be even better than he was last year. I think we started seeing that at the end of the year, and he could be a replacement for Jarome as a possibility.

— Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien on forward Loui Eriksson's potential