Who Will Be The Dallas Stars' Surprise Playoff Performer?
Shawn Horcoff memorably amplified his game for Dallas in the 2014 playoffs, and an old friend of his could replicate that level this time around
One of the most intriguing things about the NHL playoffs is how they can act as a historic proving ground for players.
Most of the NHL's all-time greatest stars - Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and numerous others - entrenched and solidified their careers and legacies by what they achieved in the playoffs, leading their teams to greatness.
However, it's not just the league's elite talent that can use the playoffs to achieve fame and honor.
For as long as the NHL playoffs have been around rookies, journeymen, and other often unheralded players have used the postseason to leave their marks. With upwards of just 28 games to work with a player having the best stretch of hockey of his career could change the fate of an entire organization. Likewise, because of the increased intensity of a do-or-die series and the instant rivalry-building of repeated games against the same team a player that taps into his inner warrior could rise to the occasion.
Players like Ruslan Fedotenko, Fernando Pisani and John Druce aren't remembered for their regular season performances, but by what they were able to do in specific playoff runs.
Dallas Stars fans caught a small glimpse of this sort of thing in the 2014 NHL playoffs with a few different players, but none as memorable as veteran forward Shawn Horcoff.
Horcoff, 35 at the time, was playing in his first playoff series in quite a long time, going all the way back to 2006. Little did Horcoff know at the end of the 2006 season, after his Edmonton Oilers team was defeated by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Final, that it would take him eight years to simply just return to the playoffs.
He certainly didn't take it for granted, playing one of the best singles series that a player in a Stars jersey ever has. After only scoring 20 points in 77 regular season games Horcoff lit it up that postseason, scoring six points in six games. His line with Vern Fiddler and Colton Sceviour turned out to be one of Dallas' best that series.
Not only was Horcoff putting up numbers on the scoresheet, but his level of intensity shift in and shift out was incredible. He even dropped the gloves at one point.
With the Stars back in the playoffs again this season, it then begs the question: who will be Dallas' breakout, surprise playoff performer this time around?
How about Horcoff's two-time former teammate Ales Hemsky?
Horcoff in 2014 and Hemsky in 2016 certainly have a lot in common. While Hemsky doesn't play the same style of hockey as Horcoff (don't expect him to crash the opposing net as much, or drop the gloves, well, ever), he's probably going to feel the same sense of urgency to make the most of his playoff opportunity, not knowing when he'll get another.
Like Horcoff previously, Hemsky's last taste of playoff action was that same 2006 Cup run by the Oilers, where Hemsky picked up 17 points in 24 games. It's been a whopping ten years and 612 NHL regular season games between then and now. A lot of unfortunate hockey players, when their careers are at or near their ends, will describe how they thought that they would get a shot at the playoffs and chase the Stanley Cup regularly, only to have the opposite end up being the case.
Luckily for Hemsky, though, is the fact that not only is he on one of the league's top teams heading into this year's playoffs, but he himself is on an incredible tear as of late, riding a wave of momentum that could make him a very dangerous player for the Stars.
Over the past few weeks Hemsky has played on a consistent line with center Radek Faksa and left wing Antoine Roussel, which has arguably been the Stars' best line since it was put together. The trio regularly match up against top lines from other teams and handle heavy defensive zone starts, yet are still north of 55% Corsi For when together, possession numbers that are nearly unheard of given the line's usage and deployment. Hemsky alone has nine points over his past 10 games.
On the season as a whole Hemsky has been quietly spectacular, a significant improvement from the disappointing debut with Dallas that he had last year. He picked up 39 points in 75 regular season games and a 54.2% Corsi For, both improvements over last season, despite being asked to do heavier lifting.
"He's been real good," said head coach Lindy Ruff about Hemsky. "I really feel that's he going to relish the opportunity to be back at it. It's something I want all our players to do, is have fun with this. You never know when the next time's going to come. I think Ales is a good example of that, that it's been 10 years. Do everything you possibly can to do it right this time."
With wind at his sails, solid linemates around him, and some extra motivation after such a long absence from playoff hockey, don't be surprised to see Hemsky elevate his game to another level for the Stars these playoffs.