Look for unlikely heroes to emerge during NHL playoffs

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 10:40pm

The game-breakers ought to be obvious.

The Western Conference quarterfinal series between the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings, which begins Wednesday (7 p.m., Bridgestone Arena, SportSouth), will be a showcase for plenty of top-end talent.

Suter. Weber. Radulov. Rinne. Datsyuk. Zetterberg. Lidstrom. Bertuzzi.

There’s a good chance, though, that the game-changers are not among that group.

“Really, to have any success in any round you need to have your best players be the best players and you need everyone else to step up,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “Last year our best players were our best players and the other guys stepped up — role players stepped up.

“You look at every team and every series there’s always a little bit of an unsung hero. … There are no regular plays — every play is important. And there’s no regular players.”

The Predators proved as much a year ago when they made their deepest postseason run ever.

Jerred Smithson scored arguably the most important goal of the first-round series with Anaheim. His overtime tally gave Nashville a 4-3 victory in Game 5, and the Predators won the series in the following game. In five previous trips to the postseason, the defensive-minded forward had exactly one point (a goal).

Matt Halischuk, another role player, ended the second game of the next series, with Vancouver, when he scored in the second overtime. That evened the series at one game apiece.

Smithson and Halischuk combined for nine goals during the regular season.

“It was an exciting time,” Halischuk, who scored two playoff goals in 2011, said. “Obviously, playoffs are fun. … You want to do what makes you successful and just play the team. If you do that, there are going to be times when guys step out and make plays.”

When all was said and done, Joel Ward was Nashville’s leading playoff scorer with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 12 games. His average of slightly more than a point per contest was well ahead of what he did in the regular season when he had 10 goals and 19 assists in 80 appearances.

Detroit also knows the dynamic well.

Right wing Johan Franzen has been a productive player for some time. Twice in the past five seasons he has had more than 50 points, including a career-high 58 in 2010-11. Three of the last four times he’s been in the postseason, though, he has averaged better than a point per game.

“I think that’s how teams are successful in the playoffs,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “They have all four lines contribute, all six [defensemen], the goalies play well. Everything has to be going. Last year that was a great thing to have for us.”

Nashville has five players on its roster — forwards Gabriel Bourque and Craig Smith and defensemen Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Jack Hillen — who never have appeared in an NHL playoff contest Then there are any number of role players such as Halichuk and Brandon Yip or defenseman Francis Bouillon, who has chipped in an inordinate number of goals lately, that figure to get opportunities as well.

After all, teams can’t leave their top players on the ice at all times.

“There will be some great sidebars to this whole series,” Trotz said. “I think you’re going to see some great offensive players on both sides. You’re going to see some great defensemen on both sides. You’re going to see some great goaltending.

“To me, there’s lots of little stories within the whole story. But I think you’ve got two organizations that pride themselves on being a winning organization.”


Game 1: Wednesday at Nashville, 7 p.m. (SportSouth)
Game 2: Friday at Nashville, 6:30 p.m. (SportSouth)
Game 3: Sunday at Detroit, 11 a.m. (NBC)
Game 4: Tuesday at Detroit, 6:30 p.m. (SportSouth)
Game 5: April 20 at Nashville, 7 p.m. (SportSouth), if necessary
Game 6: April 22 at Detroit, time TBD, if necessary
Game 7: April 24 at Nashville, time TBD, if necessary