Some of hockey's biggest unsung heroes are defensive forwards. Their value becomes even more pronounced in the playoffs, yet they rarely get 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 bring a team, in reality, the biggest advantage associated with home ice is the ability to make the last line change, allowing the 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 out there that won't forget Jaromir Jagr lunging and injuring himself at then-Devil Scott Gomez in frustration of being matched against Jay Pandolfo and John Madden in New Jersey's sweep of the Rangers in the first round in 2006.
Samuel 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?
Here is a top defensive forward from each of the Western Conference playoff teams:
Travis Moen, San Jose: Moen played with Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer as Anaheim's shut-down unit when the Ducks won it all in 2007. In the Stanley Cup Final that year, they faced the high-flying Senators. Moen and company kept Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley off the board. That dynamic duo had just 1 goal and 2 assists in the five-game series. Moen plays a gritty game in the corners and is able to dig the puck out of scrums along the boards. While Moen's minus-18 rating this season might not seem to indicate that he is one of the League's premiere defensive forwards, his ranking is affected by the fact that he rarely sees the ice in offensive situations.
Ryan Kesler, Vancouver. In 2006 Bobby Clarke, then general manager of the Flyers, signed Kesler to an offer sheet, trying to lure him to Philadelphia from Vancouver. The Canucks matched that offer, however, and they sure are glad they did so. Prior to this season, Kesler was an integral part of Vancouver's penalty kill and was a faceoff specialist. But this season, coach Alain Vigneault has put him on an offensive line with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra. Kesler is still relied on to be defensively responsible, but he is also putting up points. He has surpassed his previous career-high of 37 points by 22 this season.
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit: In some quarters, Datsyuk is viewed as a dark-horse candidate for the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player. Sure, Datsyuk has 26 more points than Henrik Zetterberg, who happens to be Detroit's second-highest scorer; but Datsyuk is possibly the League's best all-round player. Last season Datsyuk had 144 takeaways, 58 more than anyone else in the League. His takeaway total has dropped to 89 this season, but it is still good enough for second in the League. Datsyuk isn't a very big player, nor is he very physical; but his speed and quick stick make up for those perceived shortcomings.
Craig Conroy, Calgary. Conroy isn't the fastest player, particularly now that he's 37; but he is loaded with hockey sense and is a thorn in the other team's side. Conroy leads Calgary forwards with 50 blocked shots, but he isn't a one-dimensional defensive player. Like Datsyuk, but to a lesser extent, Conroy has significant offensive worth and even played on the first line with Flames captain Jarome Iginla when Calgary surprised most in the hockey world and made a Cinderella run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 . Conroy is enjoying a rejuvenating season and has 40 points for the first time since 2005-06, when he was playing for the Kings.
Michael Peca, Columbus. Peca, 35, isn't the player he once was, but he is still very effective for coach Ken Hitchcock. In 1999, Peca was a major part of an underdog Buffalo team that stressed defense during an amazing playoff run that ended in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Playing for a young Columbus team, Peca is counted on to provide veteran leadership to a team making its first-ever playoff appearance. Peca has 93 games of playoff experience on his resume.
Samuel Pahlsson, Chicago. It isn't often that a team trades for an injured player, one who can't help the cause right away; but that's what happened at the trade deadline when Chicago traded a package that included defenseman James Wisniewski for a package that featured Pahlsson. He missed 19 games with a viral infection, but is back now playing for a young Chicago team that is in the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Pahlsson has playoff pedigree as he was arguably the Ducks' best defensive forward in their 2007 Stanley Cup victory.
Todd Marchant, Anaheim. With the departure of Moen and Pahlsson from Anaheim, Marchant is now one of the Ducks' top defensive forwards and is going to see an increased workload in defensive situations, particularly on the penalty kill where he leads Anaheim forwards with an average ice time of 3:47 per game. Marchant has all the fundamentals to make sure he is usually in the right place at the right time, a skill that is helped greatly by his ability to anticipate where the puck is going.
Jay McClement, St. Louis. McClement's minus-10 rating doesn't tell the whole story because he is rarely used in offensive situations. McClement isn't known for taking the body, but he is still an effective player in his own zone because of his fearless attitude. He leads all St. Louis forwards with 57 blocked shots. Special teams are a big reason why the Blues were able to turn their season around and McClement has been a fixture on St. Louis' penalty kill, averaging the most shorthanded ice time among Blues forwards at 3:50 per game.
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