Unlikely NHL Playoff Heroes
Conor Sheary, an undrafted 5’ 8", 175-pound winger out of New Hampshire put his elite hockey sense, quick feet and world-class shot to good use in Game 2 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final when he became just the fifth rookie in history to score an overtime winner. Bryan Rust, a spare part during his first two NHL seasons, found unexpected postseason success after he was slotted alongside Evgeni Malkin on Pittsburgh's explosive second line. The 24-year-old winger became the team's closeout specialist, scoring twice to help the Pens clinch their first-round series against the Rangers, then tallying both Game 7 goals that eliminated the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
Alec Martinez, a solid but undersung puck-moving blueliner who produced 11 goals and 22 points in 61 regular season games delivered five goals and 10 points in 26 playoff matches, including two of the most significant tallies in Kings' history. The first ended an epic seven-game Western Conference Finals series vs. the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, the other secured L.A.'s second Cup in three years in double overtime of Game 5 vs. the New York Rangers. Martinez started the title-winning rush and passed to teammate Kyle Clifford. The rebound came back to Martinez, and the rest was, as they often say, history.
Journeyman forward Dominic Moore, who signed with the Rangers in July 2013 after a year out of hockey while caring for his cancer-stricken wife (who he ultimately lost), quietly produced six goals and 18 points in 73 regular season games. In the first three rounds of the playoffs, he filled in ably for injured teammates Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan, skated on three different lines, and tallied seven points. His biggest moment propelled New York to its first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years when he scored the lone goal in a Game 6 win over the Canadiens in the Eastern finals that spared his team a return to Montreal for a dreaded Game 7.
Cup finalists Boston and Chicago both had supporting casts that made names for themselves. Versatile, swift-skating Bruins winger Daniel Paille was a member of the NHL's best fourth line, a key to Boston's postseason success in 2013. Moved to a new third line in Game 2 of the Cup final vs. Chicago, he scored in overtime to tie the series and then tallied what proved to be the winner in the Bruins' 2-0 win in Game 3. The Hawks got clutch contributions from winger Bryan Bickell, center Michal Handzus, and defenseman Johnny Oduya during their run to the final. Once there, agitating energy winger Andrew Shaw, a 2011 fifth-round pick who'd been passed over in two previous NHL Drafts, earned a measure of fame when he scored to end the epic 3-OT Game 1.
Signed as a free agent for $700,000 in August 2010 after parts of five non-descript seasons with the New York Islanders, Sean Bergenheim had a quiet 14-goal, 29-point regular season for Tampa Bay and then became a holy terror as the Lightning drove to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were finally brought down by eventual Cup champion Boston. Playing on a line with Dominic Moore and Steve Downie, the Finnish winger scored nine goals and 11 points in 16 games, including a tear of seven tallies in the first 11. In a first round upset of Pittsburgh in which Tampa Bay rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit, three of his goals either tied the score or gave the Bolts the lead. He also capably served on the penalty kill.
Philadelphia's eternal quest for a bona-fide cornerstone goaltender continues to this day, but in 2010, the Flyers were able to reach the Stanley Cup Final with Michael Leighton, a 29-year-old journeyman they claimed on waivers in December 2009. Leighton replaced the injured Brian Boucher in the Eastern Conference semi-final vs. Boston and went on to post three shutouts of Montreal in the conference finals. Though the Flyers fell to Chicago in six games in the final, Leighton ended the postseason a more than respectable 8-3 with a 2.46 GAA, .916 saves percentage and those three shutouts in 14 appearances.
An exceptional penalty-killer, Max Talbot's postseason heroics (both goals for the Penguins in their decisive Game 7 win over Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final) cemented his reputation as a clutch ''glue guy'' — a role player with a knack for taking a star turn. The 2002 eighth-round pick also scored the game-winner in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals and the last-minute tying goal against Detroit in Game 5 of the 2008 Cup final.
The Oilers were a huge surprise as they made a run all the way to Game 7 of the Cup final before losing to Carolina. An even bigger surprise was that the leading goal-scorer in the playoffs that year was winger Fernando Pisani, who had netted only 18 in 80 games during the regular season. During the postseason, he lit the lamp 14 times in 24 matches, including the game winners in Games 5 and 6 of the Cup final.
Ruslan Fedotenko was a 17-goal scorer in 2003-04, overshadowed by Lightning stars Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier. But in the playoffs, the Russian winger equaled Richards' team-leading 12 tallies in 22 games, finishing second in playoff scoring (one behind Calgary's Jarome Iginla) and ninth in scoring. None of Fedotenko's goals were bigger than the pair he scored in Tampa Bay's 2-1 win over Calgary in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Ten-year veteran Dave Lowry, a hard-working grinding winger, had never produced more than 19 goals during a regular season or scored more than two in any of his previous six postseason appearances. But as the Panthers made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in only their third year of existence, Lowry became a hero by turning into Florida's leading scorer with 10 goals and 17 points in 22 games. "I was always in a checking role," Lowry told the Sun-Sentinel. "I think it's just I got some bounces. I'm just trying to go to the net and create traffic. I think a lot of it has to do with being at the right place at the right time."
Broadcaster Howie Rose's now famous cry of "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" heralded one of the most famous goals in Rangers history: a wrap-around that beat New Jersey's Martin Brodeur in double OT of Game 7 in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals as New York marched to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years. It was the left-winger's second 2-OT strike in that series, the first one coming in Game 3. A trade deadline acquisition from Chicago that year, Stephane Matteau produced six goals and three assists in 23 playoff games, earning his place in Rangers lore.
The 10th round, 1984 draft pick was a two-time 20-goal scorer for the Isles, but David Volek produced only eight during the 1992-93 season. He was pretty much an afterthought on the night in Pittsburgh when he dethroned Mario Lemieux's two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in overtime of Game 7 in the Wales Conference semifinals. The decisive tally was Volek's second of the game.
A second-round pick of the Capitals in 1985, John Druce was a spare part heading into the 1990 playoffs until an injury to Dino Ciccarelli opened up a spot on Washington's top line alongside Dale Hunter and Geoff Courtnall. The opportunity, and the timing, was right for the streaky scorer and he responded with 14 goals in 15 games, including nine in a shocking five-game ouster of the favored Rangers in the first round that set the standard for unexpected heroes. The Capitals everntually fell in the conference final. Druce rode his momentum to a career-high 22-goal season in 1990-91 but never again tallied more than once in any of his six ensuing postseason appearances.
A journeyman forward who had never scored more than eight goals in parts of six NHL seasons, Chris Kontos made his legend by returning from a stint in Switzerland, signing on with the Kings, and exploding for nine in 11 playoff games during Wayne Gretzky's first season with Los Angeles. Of course, it helped to skate on a line with the Great One, but Kontos' outburst, which included a hat trick in Game 2 of the first round vs. Edmonton, helped the Kings come back from a three games to one deficit and topple Gretzky's old team in seven. Kontos posted eight of his goals in that series. He made only one more playoff appearance during this rest of his career, tallying once, but went out with a flourish for Tampa Bay by putting up 27 goals and 51 points in his NHL final regular season (1992-93).
Claude Lemieux — the feisty, villainous agitator, who was chosen in the second round of the 1983 draft — played in only 19 NHL games and scored a grand total of two goals and six points until the 1986 postseason arrived. Suddenly, Lemieux started coming up big — 10 goals, including four game-winners, in 20 games as the Canadiens captured the Stanley Cup. That kind of clutch production would mark his 19 seasons in the NHL. In all, Lemieux scored 19 playoff-game-winning goals and won four Stanley Cups — with the Canadiens, Devils (two) and Avalanche.
Daryl Evans, the rookie winger with 14 games of NHL experience, was the hero of one of the biggest upsets in NHL history. Wayne Gretzky, who'd scored 92 goals and 212 points that season, and his high-powered, rising Oilers were knocked off in a five-game first-round series by the 24-41-15 Kings, who won Game 1 by a score of 10-8 as Evans put up four points. In Game 3, with the series tied 1-1, the Kings came back from a 5-0 deficit in the third period to win 6-5 in overtime, with Evans scoring the winner in what became known as "The Miracle on Manchester." After posting five goals and 13 points in 10 playoff games that year, he would play only one more full season in the NHL, eventually leaving it in 1987.