The puck drops just over three weeks from now on the postseason -- the real NHL season -- and every spring we're treated to unsung heroes, those under-the-radar guys who step up in clutch moments during big games. With some feedback from front-office guys around the league, here's a list of five under-the-radar players I have a feeling will have a big moment or two come this spring.
On a team loaded with offense, the 36-year-old character veteran has scored 17 goals, just three short of his career high set four seasons ago. But his speed and two-way smarts are what make him so valuable on a team with so much talent. "Chimera is definitely a guy that gets lost a bit among all the Capitals' talent when coaches put the matchups up on the board,'' said an opposing Eastern Conference GM. "He is tough to defend for teams because generally you are playing your third pairing against him, and he has a difficult combination of top speed and size that is tough on fifth- and sixth-type [defensemen]. He has really become a versatile player under [head coach Barry] Trotz.'' Don't be surprised if there are two or three game winners coming off Chimera's stick in these playoffs.
The 23-year-old forward was a spare part last season, but this season has been a breakthrough, with Namestnikov becoming a versatile player who can move up and down the top-nine forward group. He's reliable defensively, but clearly has hands too. "Namestnikov is better than advertised,'' said one rival Eastern Conference executive via text message. He's only beginning to scratch the surface, but Namestnikov is the kind of sneaky weapon that can jump with some big moments when it counts.
The 24-year-old blueliner is completing his first full NHL season, and I love the way this kid plays with a blend of physicality, smarts and sandpaper that fits nicely in that Ducks lineup. "Love him, too,'' said an opposing Western Conference executive via text. "Heart-and-soul guy. No fear. Huge piece of the puzzle there.'' I'm not expecting offense from this kid, obviously, but just a hunch you're going to see a game-changing hit or the type of defensive highlight package that could save a game at some point in the postseason. Think blocked shots or breaking up an odd-man rush at a timely moment. I just feel like this kid is relishing the opportunity to make a statement in the playoffs.
The 34-year-old center from Sudbury, Ontario, is injured again, and that's bad news for a team that isn't the same without his gritty presence. The good news is that MacKenzie is slated to return before the playoffs. If that's the case, the Panthers will have an important penalty killer whose effective forechecking style gives him a knack for big moments. "Plays hard, he's hard to play against,'' said a rival Eastern Conference executive. "Not a great player but a player that the more you watch him play, the more you appreciate how effective he is, how much he helps that team win.'' He's got an overtime playoff goal written all over him.
The 29-year-old is also from the Sudbury area, and those Northern Ontario boys are tough. Acquired last season at the trade deadline as a pending unrestricted free-agent rental player, he was so effective in his fourth-line role during Chicago's Stanley Cup run that he was re-signed in the offseason. "He was great for them in the playoffs last year,'' said a rival Western Conference GM. "He's a hard-nosed player.'' A solid penalty killer and energy guy, Desjardins has the skating ability to fit in on the deeply talented Blackhawks roster. He's got some moxie, and I forecast one or two big playoff moments for him.