Stanley Cup unknowns poised to grab spotlight
Abdelkader, Eaton, others making most of opportunity
At the start of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, NHL fans in Detroit and Pittsburgh probably could have predicted with confidence that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would be at, or near, the top of the scoring race and Nicklas Lidstrom would lead all defencemen in points.
Further from the thoughts of the most ardent fans were the names of Detroit rookie forwards Justin Abdelkader and Ville Leino, along with Pittsburgh defenceman Mark Eaton and forward Craig Adams.
But each contributed on the scoresheet, on special teams, in the faceoff circle or simply with their presence to help the Red Wings and Penguins advance to the NHL championship final for the second consecutive season.
"Both of those guys probably would have been regulars on a lot of NHL teams [in the regular season]," Detroit defenceman Niklas Kronwall told CBCSports.ca, referring to Abdelkader and Leino.
"We know that whoever is out of the lineup, other guys are going to step in and do a great job. We believe our depth could be a difference maker in the Stanley Cup final."
Every year, teams have players that emerge to become the talk of the hockey world.
In 2008, Manitoba's Darren Helm came out of relative obscurity to help the Red Wings to their fourth Cup title in 11 years. The speedster scored two goals and four points in 18 post-season games after spending the bulk of the regular campaign in the minors.
In this year's Cup championship, three Penguins and three Red Wings could affect the final outcome. They are profiled below.
Brett Lebda: The 27-year-old has seen his role increase in these playoffs because of injuries to Nicklas Lidstrom and defence partner Jonathan Ericsson. It has helped the fourth-year NHLer turn in his most productive NHL post-season statistically with six points oin 16 games entering the Cup final.
Lebda collected three assists in the final two games of the Western Conference final against Chicago and averaged 14 minutes 18 seconds of ice time in the the first three rounds, up slightly from the regular season (13:38).
"He stepped up big-time [late in the West final] and was a presence on the ice," Kronwall said. "He's using speed to his advantage and getting a lot of pucks through to the net to create scoring opportunities."
Justin Abdelkader: One of the Red Wings' top forward prospects, the Michigan native had one assist and an even plus-minus rating in seven games through the first three rounds of the playoffs and followed up with goals in each of the first two games of the Cup final.
The aggressive 22-year-old centre possesses solid all-around skills and might be leaned on by Detroit head coach Mike Babcock to provide single-digit minutes in a checking role as an injury fill-in.
"He's not that old and is carrying himself very well, both on and off the ice," said Kronwall of Abdelkader, who racked up 52 points and 102 penalty minutes with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League this season.
Ville Leino: The versatile 25-year-old Finn shone during a late-season callup from Grand Rapids, scoring five goals and nine points in 13 contests, but appeared in just three games in rounds 1-3 of the playoffs.
A gifted playmaker with a sharp eye, Leino averaged just over seven minutes in Games 4 and 5 of the West final but held his own.
"They've been playing with a lot of energy, getting pucks deep [in the offensive zone] and gone to work on the other team's D-men," said Kronwall of Leino and Abdelkader. "You can definitely not tell they're rookies."
Rob Scuderi: Considered by some as one of the most improved players in the NHL, he will likely draw the assignment of shadowing Detroit centre Henrik Zetterberg. Scuderi did a solid job of limiting the damage by Washington's Alex Ovechkin in a Round 2 victory.
Second only to Sergei Gonchar among Penguins defencemen in playoff ice time at 20 minutes 56 seconds in the first three rounds, the 30-year-old had a plus-4 rating entering the Cup final after leading all Penguins at plus-23 in the regular season.
Earlier this season, Pittsburgh assistant coach Mike Yeo described Scuderi and defence partner Hal Gill as "two guys who know what their role is when they step on the ice."
Mark Eaton: Wrist and knee surgeries kept the 32-year-old blue-liner out of 71 regular-season games and the post-season in 2008, but he's making up for lost time.
Eaton entered this year's Cup final tops among Penguins defencemen and third on the team with a plus-10 rating in this post-season. A good skater who makes good decisions on the ice, his six points in rounds 1-3 nearly matched his regular-season ouput of nine.
"When you think about Mark, you think about a shutdown defenceman," Eaton's defence partner, Kris Letang, told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. "I'm looking to jump in the offence all the time. Mark's got the good speed to join in."
Craig Adams: Don't expect the six-foot, 200-pound right-winger to fill the scoresheet as his highest point total in eight NHL seasons is 21 with Carolina in 2006.
Instead, the 32-year-old hits, kills penalties, plays a solid two-way game, chips in the odd goal and wins. Adams helped the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and to a Cup title four years later.
"He has provided everything we were looking for and more," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who claimed Adams off waivers from Chicago on March 4. "I like his speed, his grit … this guy is so courageous. He plays the game the right way."