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Odd Man Rush: Conference finals a place for players to shine

1:32 PM, May 31, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Nothing can erase the memory of a disappointing regular season quicker than excelling come playoff time.

Not that Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick was a letdown this season for the Kings, who are back in the Western Conference finals for a second straight year. But the 27-year-old set the bar pretty high after his amazing 2011-12 campaign and there were times this season when it looked like the netminder may struggle under the weight of expectations.

Take his season debut on Jan. 19 against the Chicago Blackhawks, who just happen to be Quick's next playoff opponent. Fresh off a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, Quick gave up five goals in a 5-2 setback as the Blackhawks spoiled the Kings' raising of their first-ever championship banner.

Now it is Quick who will look to disappoint a Blackhawks team that came into the postseason as the top seed in the Western Conference and heavy favorites to win the Cup.

Quick won 35 games and notched 10 shutouts in the regular season for Los Angeles a season ago, then went 16-4 in the playoffs with a 1.41 goals against average. The American-born goaltender's numbers were not as good this season, but still solid: 18-13-4 with a 2.45 GAA in 37 games but with only one shutout.

Whether by design or not, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter gave backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier more work in 2013, with the 24-year-old appearing in 14 games in the lockout-shortened season compared to 16 the campaign before.

But Quick has quickly morphed into playoff form, going 8-5 with three shutouts and a 1.50 GAA in 13 games. And the Kings have needed him to be good because they are struggling to score goals this postseason.

"Obviously, we've become fans like the rest of the people in the building and people watching on TV," Kings forward Dustin Penner said recently of Quick. "We get kind of spoiled and get used to it. He does it in practice too. He never gives up on a puck. We also expect those saves during the game because we see them so often during practice."

While top Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty noted the Kings would like to take some of the pressure off Quick, there is no doubt the netminder is ready to shine for the remainder of the postseason.

Here are three other players -- one from each remaining team -- to keep an eye on in the conference finals.

JONATHAN TOEWS, C, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Like Quick, Toews is a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner. But unlike the player he will be taking his shots against, Toews has underperformed for a majority of the postseason.

Toews averaged a point per game during the regular season, notching 23 goals and 48 points in 47 games. He recorded 29 points in 22 playoff games in helping Chicago claim the Stanley Cup in 2010.

This postseason, the 25-year-old captain has logged only one goal and six points in 12 games and the frustrated winger took three costly penalties in a Game 4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference semifinals that gave the Blackhawks a 3-1 series deficit.

However, he responded with a goal in Game 5 and notched two assists to help the Blackhawks force a seventh game with the Red Wings, which Chicago won 2-1 in overtime. While Toews didn't score in that series-clincher, he logged over 20 minutes of ice time and won 60 percent of his face-offs.

Even with his subpar numbers, the Kings should have plenty of focus on Toews.

TOMAS VOKOUN, G, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

It's a no-brainer that the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will be contributors if the Pittsburgh Penguins are to defeat the Boston Bruins and reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since their last Cup victory in 2009.

But if that happens, it appears as if it will be with Vokoun and not Marc-Andre Fleury leading the way in net.

Fleury put up solid numbers when the Penguins knocked off the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Cup Finals, but his career postseason stats don't scream success and things finally caught up to the former No. 1 overall draft pick this year.

Fleury allowed 14 goals and had just a 3.40 GAA and .891 save percentage as the Penguins split their first four games with the New York Islanders in the opening round. And after the 28-year-old had been torched for 26 goals in six games of a first-round exit at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers the previous season, Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma made the gutsy move and went to Vokoun in net.

It paid off.

The 36-year-old Vokoun has gone 6-1 with a 1.85 GAA and .941 save percentage since replacing Fleury, helping the Penguins finish off the Islanders before a five-game series win over the Ottawa Senators.

"He never gets too rattled, never gets too excited. He's pretty even-keeled," defenseman Brooks Orpik told his club's website of Vokoun. "Being a veteran, I think a lot of guys look to him to see how he carries himself ... Even in the games, when things aren't going his way, he moves on pretty quick. It doesn't carry over to the next game."

With the Penguins not having much of an issue versus the Senators, it is unknown how quickly Bylsma would go back to Fleury if Vokoun struggles, but for now the 36-year-old is thriving in his first deep playoff run.

JAROMIR JAGR, F, BOSTON BRUINS

The days of Jagr shouldering the load like Alec Baldwin at a family reunion are long gone, but he still has enough left in the tank to deal his former Penguins club a painful blow.

Jagr, of course, began his NHL career after Pittsburgh took him fifth overall in the 1990 draft and spent his first 11 seasons with the Penguins. He helped the club capture back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92 and is second to only Mario Lemieux on the club's all-time playoff scoring list in goals, assists and points.

The 41-year-old leads all active players with 193 career playoff points over 192 games with 78 goals and 115 points, but has just four assists in this year's postseason.

Still, the Bruins acquired Jagr at the trade deadline from the Dallas Stars for his leadership and veteran knowledge, only furthering the depth of a Boston franchise that was Stanley Cup winners as recent as 2011.

"He doesn't need to be the Jagr of 20 years ago or 15 years ago," Bruins head coach Claude Julien said. "He needs to be the Jags that we have right now."

That is a talented forward who should be extra motivated against the club for which he laid the foundation of his future Hall of Fame career.

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