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Barker, Mitchell, Ericsson, Hiller emerge in playoffs @NHLdotcom
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 9 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, has identified eight early candidates:

Cam Barker, Chicago Blackhawks -- Following his impressive performance in the Blackhawks' first-round victory against the Calgary Flames, 23-year-old defenseman Cam Barker convincingly joined the list of young stars fueling the franchise's dramatic revival this season.

Making his Stanley Cup Playoff debut, Barker led all NHL defensemen in scoring during the conference quarterfinals with 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) in the Blackhawks' six-game series win against the Flames. He lifted his club to a crucial overtime victory in Game 1 by opening the scoring for the Blackhawks late in the second period to knot the score at 1-1. Later, his pinch deep in the Calgary zone in the third period led to Martin Havlat's game-tying goal with 5:33 to play in regulation.

"'Barks' has been a pretty effective guy for us," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's a great first passer, he's physical and strong and, defensively, he's improved his game and his awareness in both the defensive end and offensive side of things. We feel he'll be a really solid defenseman in this League because there's a lot of upside."

It has been a long road to prominence for Barker, who was selected by the Blackhawks with the No. 3 selection in the 2004 Entry Draft after the Washington Capitals took Alex Ovechkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins nabbed Evgeni Malkin. Mononucleosis and a fractured ankle in 2005 delayed his development and he spent his first two pro seasons shuttling between the 'Hawks and the American Hockey League.

Barker started the 2008-09 season with the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate in Rockford, Ill., playing seven games there before being recalled for the remainder of the season Oct. 27. He went on to lead all Chicago defensemen in power-play goals (5) and set career highs in games (68), assists (34) and points (40).

Willie Mitchell, Vancouver Canucks -- He doesn't dazzle with end-to-end rushes or quarterback the power play, but there's no mistaking defenseman Willie Mitchell's importance to the success of the Vancouver Canucks. Mitchell, 32, gets a lot of ice time -- he led the Canucks and ranked seventh among all first-round playoff participants with a per-game average of 25:46 -- and they are "hard" minutes, matching up against the opponent's best players and killing penalties.

Mitchell in fact led the NHL in shorthanded ice time per game in the first round (5:03), helping the Canucks shut down a St. Louis Blues power play that ranked eighth in the League during the regular season (20.5 percent). The Blues went 1-for-24 in the series, including 0-for-7 in Vancouver's 3-2 overtime win in Game 4 that completed the first sweep of a best-of-7 series in the 39-year history of the franchise.

If that wasn't enough, Mitchell provided some unexpected offense in the series-clinching victory. He assisted on both of Alex Burrows' goals, including the game-winner with 18.9 seconds left in the first overtime period.

In his 538 regular-season games with New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas and Vancouver, Mitchell has only 15 goals and 92 assists. Entering Game 4, he had only 1 goal and 6 assists in 38 career playoff games.

"See, I told you I had skill," Mitchell joked with reporters.

"This is where experience comes in," Mitchell said. "In the playoffs, it's a battle. A battle of attrition. A mental battle. Battling for an inch … game after game.

"I remember coming up to watch the New Jersey Devils for the 2000 playoffs. I remember watching Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer prepare for each game, how focused they were and how they left it all on the ice. I also remember them saying that when you get a team down like we did here, you finish them off when you can. That's how those great Devils players did. They finished them off -- and then got the rest they needed before the next series."

Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit Red Wings -- Jonathan Ericsson's rise to the NHL has been a slow, steady climb. Selected by the Red Wings with the final pick (No. 291) in the 2002 Entry Draft, it has taken the 25-year-old defenseman seven seasons to realize his dream of becoming an NHL regular.

He spent four years toiling in various Swedish leagues and the better part of the last three seasons with Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids before catching a break last month. As often happens, it took an injury to another player (Andreas Lilja concussion, Feb. 28) for Ericsson to crack the Red Wings' lineup. He made his 2008-09 debut on March 3 at St. Louis and has not been out of the lineup since.

Of the 18 skaters who suited up for the Wings in their four-game sweep of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round, only Ericsson had never appeared in a Stanley Cup Playoffs game. He joined a defense corps that had 476 games of playoff experience and 10 Stanley Cups to their credit, but the rookie has quickly become a mainstay on the blue line.

"When you watch him play, he's a big talented guy who knows how to play the game," coach Mike Babcock said. "He's mature beyond his years and he's been very effective for us. With the loss of Lils (Lilja), we needed another guy to step up and solidify our defense and he has done that."

Ericsson's teammates have been impressed with the composure he has shown in his first taste of playoff action.

"He's able to hang on to the puck and doesn't throw it away because he's trying to make a good pass every time," Nicklas Lidstrom said. "He's good at using his size because he likes to take advantage and knows how to play the body. He's been playing very well defensively in these playoffs."

Ericsson averaged 15:33 of ice time in opening round and scored his first-ever playoff goal in Game 1, the game-winner.

"The waiting was worth it," Ericsson said of his first taste of Stanley Cup Playoff action. "I wouldn't want to be any other place right now."

Anaheim Ducks Playoff Gear Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks -- Two years ago, with the Ducks in the midst of a five-day break in their playoff schedule, preparing to meet the Ottawa Senators in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, the team announced the signing of 25-year-old Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller. While the May 25 signing received little attention in NHL circles, it did not go unnoticed by Swiss countryman Martin Gerber, who was the Senators' back-up netminder.

"He's a good goalie," Gerber said at the time. "I think he's capable of playing over here. He has everything you need to play here -- he's old enough; he has enough experience. He's going to need some time to adjust but still I think he has a good chance."

While his signing may have flown under the radar two years ago, his performance in the Ducks' opening series win against the Presidents' Trophy San Jose Sharks has propelled the 27-year-old to center stage in the 2009 playoffs.

Hiller's overall numbers against the Sharks -- four wins, a 1.64 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and two shutouts in six games -- are impressive. But it was his performance at two critical points in the series that were keys in the Ducks upset of the Sharks. In the second period of Game 2, with the game tied at one, Hiller stopped all 17 shots he faced to allow the Ducks to right themselves for the third period and go on to post a 3-2 win and grab a 2-0 series lead. In the series-clinching game, Hiller was at it again. He turned aside 17 of 18 first period shots to allow the Ducks to come out of the period tied. The Ducks went on to a 4-1 win.

Hiller's emergence in the 2009 playoffs may be a revelation to NHL fans outside of California, but to a number of NHL stars, who played with and against him on the international stage over the past five years, Hiller is anything but a mystery. Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash was a teammate of Hiller's with HC Davos during the NHL lockout in 2004-05. "When I was in Switzerland, I was surprised he wasn't already in North America," Nash recalled to reporters at the 2007 World Championships. "There's not many ways to beat him. He's one of the hardest-working goalies I've seen. It's pretty impressive, his work ethic. He's a big guy, who goes down in the butterfly like (Roberto) Luongo and kind of covers up the whole net.

Nash was speaking on the eve of a quarterfinal matchup at the World Championships between a powerful Canadian team and the underdog Swiss side. Fifteen minutes and 15 shots into the game, Canada had not beaten Hiller.

"We were a bit worried," Nash admitted. "We couldn't seem to beat him." The Canadians eventually prevailed 5-1, but Hiller's dream of playing in the NHL would be a big step closer just two weeks later when he signed with the Ducks.

"It was always a dream, to play in the best league in the world but it just seemed too far away," Hiller said at his first NHL training camp in September, 2007. "That (2004-05) was the first time people were watching me and making me think I could play here," Hiller recalled. "That year was the first year I recognized it would even be possible to play over here. I was never drafted, and nobody from the NHL would talk to me before that year."

Everyone is talking to Jonas Hiller now.

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