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These East forwards are defensive whizzes

by Adam Schwartz

Some of hockey's biggest unsung heroes in hockey are defensive forwards. Their value becomes even more pronounced in the playoffs, yet they rarely see the spotlight.

While most casual fans believe that home-ice advantage in the playoffs is so important because of the emotional lift a rabid, partisan crowd can give to a team, in reality, the biggest advantage associated with home ice is the ability to make the last line change -- allowing a coach to match his best defensive players against the opposition's most dangerous weapons.

Line matching is a major storyline throughout the postseason as players make names for themselves with the shutdown work they deliver, proving beyond a doubt that they are up to the hardest test at their position.

There probably isn't a devoted New Jersey fan who won't forget Jaromir Jagr lunging and injuring himself at then-Devil Scott Gomez in frustration after being matched against Jay Pandolfo and John Madden in New Jersey's sweep of the Rangers in the first round in 2006.

Sami Pahlsson, meanwhile, made a name for himself as a checking center during Anaheim's run to the 2007 title.

Actually, a defensive forward has emerged as a storyline on virtually every Stanley Cup-winning team since the mid '90s. So who will step out of the shadows and into the spotlight this season?

Below is a candidate from each of the Eastern Conference playoff teams.

P.J. Axelsson, Boston -- Axelsson isn't solely a defensive forward like some other players on this list; but that's the role he fills best for coach Claude Julien. Axelsson has seen time playing on the Bruins' first line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel, replacing Milan Lucic; but other than spot duty there, he plays on the third line and in a checking role. Axelsson has been hailed as one of the best-conditioned players and is a pretty clean player, amassing only 16 penalty minutes in 75 games this season.

David Steckel, Washington -- As the old saying goes, "You have to have the puck to score." Steckel ensures that the Capitals have the puck for the first couple of seconds after a faceoff because he is second in the Southeast Division and fifth in the League with a 57.9 winning percentage. Despite Steckel's lanky 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, he isn't the most physical player, but he is still effective.

John Madden, New Jersey -- Madden has long been a fixture in New Jersey, sharing a line with Jay Pandolfo that has shut down many an opponent's top offensive talents. This season, however, Pandolfo has been a healthy scratch on a regular basis due to the depth of New Jersey's forwards. Recently, however, Madden and Pandolfo have been reunited on a line with Brendan Shanahan. Madden has scored 15 goals in six of his last eight seasons, but scored just 7 this season. He could probably score more goals playing for another team, but Madden has accepted his defense-first job in Jersey.

Mike Richards, Philadelphia -- Richards is one of the more recognizable names on this list because he is the Flyers' captain as well as their heart and soul. Richards is a physical force and is one of Philadelphia's best penalty-killers on one of the League's most aggressive penalty kills. Because of the team's philosophy of pressuring the points, Philadelphia has created a number of giveaways, leading to a League-best 16 shorthanded goals this season. Richards led the League with 7 shorthanded goals and 9 shorthanded points. 

Maxim Lapierre, Montreal -- Lapierre, like most of Montreal's forwards, is an excellent skater and uses his speed to pressure the other team in a system that stresses a heavy forecheck. Lapierre averaged 1:58 of shorthanded ice time per game and led Habs' forwards with 52 blocked shots. His tenacity is proven by his 46 takeaways, which also is tops among Montreal forwards. Like Richards, Lapierre isn't afraid to mix it up and is one of six Montreal players with at least 120 hits.

Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina -- Even though Brind'Amour didn't get off to the best start this season -- he had a minus-29 rating through 48 games prior to the All-Star Beak -- he has turned it around, proving that the 38-year-old still has some gas left in the tank. Brind'Amour won the Selke Trophy in 2006 and 2007 and could have taken home more hardware in 2006; it could easily have been argued that Brind'Amour, not Cam Ward, deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Like Steckel, Brind'Amour is more than proficient in the faceoff circle, leading the League with a 61.0 winning percentage on faceoffs. 

Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh -- The Penguins already have two top centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they signed Staal to a four-season contract extension in January largely because of his terrific play in his own end. He is especially dangerous on the penalty kill. He scored a record-setting 7 shorthanded goals as an 18-year-old rookie in 2006-07.

Blair Betts, Rangers -- New York finished with the best penalty kill in the League at 87.8 percent, and Betts is a major part of that success. Betts is fast, but also plays sound positionally in his own end. While being coached by Tom Renney earlier this season, Betts saw limited ice time, playing alongside enforcer Colton Orr and Fredrik Sjostrom. That hasn't changed much since John Tortorella took over behind the bench, but Betts remains a valuable defensive specialist and penalty killer.

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