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Difference Makers in the West

by Staff Writer / Edmonton Oilers
Since arriving in San Jose, Joe Thornton has been playing on a higher level.
by Shawn P. Roarke Senior Writer

Little things tend to become big things in the white-hot cauldron that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In seven-games series between evenly matched teams for the most part, victory generally hinges on the smallest of details. As a result, teams often look to exploit any potential edge, trying to mask other deficiencies in the process.

With that in mind, it is helpful to look at some of the game-breaking players and other intangibles that might come into play as the NHL kicks off its two-month dance of sudden-death drama known as the Quest for the Stanley Cup.

Here then is a look at some of the difference-makers among the Western Conference's eight playoff teams.

Best All-Around Forward: Joe Thornton, San Jose -- Thornton has never produced in the playoffs during his career, but there is no arguing his credentials entering these playoffs. He leads the League in scoring, including a career-best 96 assists and 125 points. He has a natural goal-scorer on his flank in Jonathan Cheechoo and is surrounded by more complementary talent than he has ever enjoyed in the past. Plus, he has finished the regular season on fire, stealing the scoring crown from Jaromir Jagr with an unbelievable finishing kick.

Best Offensive Forward: Teemu Selanne, Anaheim -- "The Finnish Flash" has rediscovered his scoring touch this season, netting a team-high 40 goals, his highest total since scoring 47 goals in 1998-99. His goal-scoring exploits, as well as his stunning performance in leading Finland to the silver medal at this winter's Olympics, have Selanne playing with the same confidence that made him an elite offensive performer early in his first stint with the Mighty Ducks.

Best Defensive Forward: Stephen Yelle, Calgary -- On a team full of defensively conscious players, Yelle is the blueprint of what coach Darryl Sutter wants from his players, as evidenced by his plus-10 rating despite registering just 18 points. He is a checking-line center who plays copious amounts of penalty-killing time, is adept at blocking shots and uses his intelligence to shadow the top centers in the Western Conference. He is also strong in the faceoff circle, winning 55 percent of his 1,072 faceoffs. His understated leadership is also part of the reason the Flames have remained on an even keel throughout the season.

Best Penalty Killer: Greg Johnson, Nashville -- The Predators' gritty center is the team's primary penalty killer up front, playing close to five minutes of penalty-killing time per game. He has four shorthanded goals, tied for the team lead with Steve Sullivan. Johnson uses his hockey intellect and solid foundation in fundamentals to make himself a consistent threat when playing with the man disadvantage.

Biggest Power-Play Threat: Ryan Smyth, Edmonton -- The heart and soul of the Oilers, Smyth does the majority of his offensive damage on the power play. Using his willingness to plant his big body in front of the goalie and absorb the requisite punishment to hold his ground, Smyth has scored more than half of his 36 goals with the man advantage. His 19 power-play goals are the 10th highest total in the League. All together, Smyth has managed 31 points on the power play.

Scott Niedermayer
Former Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer has all the skills to dominate games from start to finish.

Best All-Around Defenseman: Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim -- There has not been a better defenseman than Niedermayer in the League since the Olympic Break provided him the respite to address a troublesome injury. The former Norris Trophy winner has all the skills -- unbelievable recovery speed, superb conditioning, hockey smarts and offensive know-how -- to dominate games from start to finish. And, that is exactly what Niedermayer has been doing since the start of March. In fact, he should be among the favorites to win the Norris Trophy this season, posting 63 points and a plus-8 rating for a team that has clawed its way up the Western Conference standings.

Best Offensive Defenseman: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit -- Another favorite for the Norris, an honor for which Lidstrom is consistently in the running. Lidstrom is averaging a point per game with 16 goals and 64 assists in 80 games. Nine of his 16 goals have come on the power play, where he has managed 50 of his 80 points. He is among the best puck-moving defensemen in the League, able to spring Detroit forwards with pin-point, two-line passes. He is also a plus-21, attesting to the fact that he is no slouch in his own end, as well.

Best Shot Blocker: Jason Smith, Edmonton -- "Gator" is a throwback defenseman, sacrificing his body at every turn for the benefit of his team. For much of the season, Smith has understood that goaltending has been his team's Achilles' heel and has responded by blocking a team-high 176 shots, the seventh-highest total among the League's defensemen. Smith has also registered a stunning 151 hits, a consistent showing of two per game.

Best Faceoff Man: Joe Sakic, Colorado -- Sakic has struggled offensively at times this year, but it has rarely affected his ability to excel at many of the fundamental aspects of the game. He has taken 1,669 draws, the third-highest total in the League and a number that represents one-third of his team's faceoffs. He has responded by winning 52.5 percent of those faceoffs he is assigned, including many big, end-of-the-game draws in both the offensive and defensive zones.

Best Goalie: Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary -- "Kipper" carried the Flames to within one win of the Stanley Cup two years ago, and, amazingly, he has been even better this year. The clear favorite for the Vezina Trophy, Kiprusoff has been responsible for 95 of Calgary's 103 points. He is tied for the League lead in wins, with 42, and has a sterling 2.07 goals-against average and an other-worldly .923 save percentage. His League-leading 10 shutouts attest to the undeniable fact that he is among the game's biggest game-breakers.

Best Coach: Darryl Sutter, Calgary -- Has anybody done more with less? Sutter has led a team with a couple of stars and a cast of virtually unrecognized support players to the Northwest Division crown, comfortably distancing the Flames from Colorado, the perennial division champs. Plus, Sutter showed two springs ago that he is an adept postseason tactician, leading an unfancied Calgary team to within one win of claiming the Stanley Cup. There is no reason that he can't repeat that performance this season.

Biggest X Factor: Bill Guerin, Dallas -- The Stars' power forward has endured a miserable season, struggling to find his offensive production throughout the season. A forced 11-game layoff with a scary eye injury only compounded things for Guerin, but he returned to the lineup April 8. Still getting use to the necessary full face shield he must now wear, Guerin has assists in two of his last three outings. If he can find the power forward form that has made him one of the game's most productive wingers for the last decade, Dallas will be an even tougher out than it already must be considered.

Best atmosphere: Detroit -- Joe Louis Arena is hockey heaven at virtually anytime. But the old building really comes to life in the spring as the area's passionate hockey fan base fills the building to capacity and roars its beloved Red Wings to even greater glory. As a result, trips to Detroit are rarely pleasant, and usually disastrous -- especially for teams unversed in the ways of playoff hockey. Plus, its hard for visiting players to concentrate on the tasks at hand when they must avoid the flying octopi.
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