Blackhawks' Panarin tops players to watch in 2016 NHL playoffs
Evgeny Kuznetsov considers the KHL playoffs in Russia to be just as intense as the spotlight for the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. Kuznetsov has experienced both, thanks to two rounds with the Washington Capitals last season.
This spring, Chicago Blackhawks rookie and fellow Russian Artemi Panarin gets his first taste of the NHL postseason a year after being a point-a-game player for Gagarin Cup-champion CSKA Moscow. Panarin, alongside Patrick Kane, is trying to land the Cup in Chicago for the fourth time in seven seasons.
Panarin is the first rookie 30-goal scorer since Jeff Skinner and Michael Grabner in 2010-11, and is considered the front-runner for the Calder Trophy. The 24-year-old who finished with 77 points is appointment viewing for fans and must-stop entertainment for the St. Louis Blues and anyone else Chicago faces in the playoffs.
Here's a look at 15 other players to watch once the postseason begins on Wednesday:
BEST OF THE WEST
JAMIE BENN, DALLAS: Benn is strong as a bull and has slick hands. Assuming Tyler Seguin is healthy, he and Benn are the second-most dynamic duo in hockey after Kane and Panarin.
BRIAN ELLIOTT, ST. LOUIS: Elliott's three consecutive shutouts in March showed that his goaltending can win the Blues not just games but a series. Against the Blackhawks, they might need it.
SHEA WEBER, NASHVILLE: Weber dislocated his knee in Game 2 against Chicago last year, which sank the Predators. The big defenseman does everything for defensive-minded Nashville.
ZACH PARISE, MINNESOTA: Parise bears watching because an undisclosed injury forced him to miss the regular-season finale. The Wild's only 25-goal scorer is ''day-to-day'' and they need him playing.
COREY PERRY, ANAHEIM: The Ducks allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season, but they'll need to score some, too. Perry can do that pretty well with one of the best shots around.
DREW DOUGHTY, LOS ANGELES: Playoff-level Doughty is something to behold. The two-way defenseman ratchets his game up in the postseason and has been a key reason for the Kings' two Cups.
JOE THORNTON, SAN JOSE: Thornton is having a beard-off with defenseman Brent Burns, and both are invaluable to the Sharks. Watch to see if Thornton keeps up his point-a-game career renaissance.
BEASTS OF THE EAST
ALEX OVECHKIN, WASHINGTON: Kuznetsov was the Capitals' leading scorer, but Ovechkin dropped 50 goals - again. Now 30, Ovechkin has everything to prove and he looks poised to do just that.
SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH: Since Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach, Crosby has been on fire. He makes the Penguins go, especially with Evgeni Malkin's status uncertain.
HENRIK LUNDQVIST, NEW YORK RANGERS: Lundqvist's chances to be a dominant goaltender on a Cup-winning team are dwindling. He'll have to steal the show against Pittsburgh before going any further.
SHAYNE GOSTISBEHERE, PHILADELPHIA: ''Ghost'' has a wicked shot that can get through from the point on the power play and can ignite the Flyers' offense. He can also be an adventure defensively.
JAROMIR JAGR, FLORIDA: Who doesn't like watching Jagr chug along at 44? Hockey's elder statesman is producing like he was 20 years ago for the youthful Panthers, but he won't play forever.
VICTOR HEDMAN, TAMPA BAY: Without the injured Anton Stralman, the pressure is on Hedman to be a rock on defense for the Lightning. With so many injuries, defense is where Tampa Bay's hopes rest.
PAVEL DATSYUK, DETROIT: Datsyuk could be playing his final NHL games, so the Red Wings want to make them count. The ''Magic Man'' still has some magic left after all these years.
JOHN TAVARES, NEW YORK ISLANDERS: The Islanders' captain is just about the perfect balance of a goal-scorer and a playmaker. If Tavares catches fire, New York should be able to reach the Eastern Conference final.