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The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a showcase for the NHL’s brightest stars. It can also feature breakout efforts for rising stars, such as Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and rookies such as Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jake Guentzel.
For Kuznetsov, this postseason gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his value to the Capitals in a contract year. Guentzel, meanwhile, is using this occasion to showcase his scoring potential.
Here’s a look at the biggest breakout stars of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their individual skills, overall performance and value to their teams factored into this compilation.
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Having become a finalist this season for the Calder Memorial Trophy, Toronto Maple Leafs rookie center Auston Matthews established himself this season as a future superstar. The 19-year-old also fared well in his first NHL postseason.
Matthews entered the playoffs having led the Leafs and all NHL rookies in scoring with 40 goals and 69 points. In the opening-round series against the Washington Capitals, he was the Leafs leader in goals (four) and points (five). He also led all Toronto forwards in time on ice per game, logging an average of 20 minutes and 18 seconds.
Sometimes regular-season success can prove difficult for a rookie to replicate in the playoffs. Matthews, however, rose to the challenge. Thanks in part to his efforts, the Leafs gave a strong account of themselves against the heavily-favored Capitals before bowing out in six games.
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A broken leg limited New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad to 37 points in 56 games during the regular season. But in 12 playoff games against the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, the 24-year-old bounced back with a solid effort.
Zibanejad led the Rangers by reaching career highs with seven assists and nine points. He also led all New York forwards in blocked shots (13), tied for first in faceoff wins (102) with Kevin Hayes and was the only Ranger to score an overtime goal.
Acquired from the Ottawa Senators last summer, Zibanejad’s regular-season injury hampered his performance. However, his playoff accomplishments suggest the potential to become a high-end center. Those efforts could also prove beneficial in his contract talks with Rangers management in the offseason.
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In 2015-16, Kuznetsov established himself as an offensive star, tallying 77 points in 82 games. But it wasn’t until this year that the 24-year-old broke through as a postseason scorer for the Capitals.
Last spring, Kuznetsov managed only two points in 12 games. This year, however, was a different story. Centering the second line with Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, he finished second on the Capitals in goals (five) and shots (43). He was also third in points (10) in 13 games.
Despite yet another frustrating early postseason exit by the Capitals, Kuznetsov’s improvement was a bright spot. A restricted free agent with arbitration rights, those efforts should also garner him a lucrative new contract and perhaps a larger role with the club.
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Since 2015-16, Rickard Rakell blossomed into a reliable offensive forward with the Anaheim Ducks. Skating at center or left wing, the versatile 24-year-old tallied 20 goals last season and 33 in 2016-17. This spring, however, is the first time he’s put up comparable numbers in the playoffs.
Prior to this year, Rakell had only three goals and five points in 27 postseason games. He’s since exceeded those totals. In 13 games, he sits third among Ducks’ scorers with six goals and 12 points. He’s also their plus/minus leader (+12) and was held off the score sheet only four times.
Entering this season, scoring depth on the wings was an issue for the Ducks. Rakell helped to partially alleviate that issue. He’s also a key factor in his club’s efforts to reach the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
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For most of his NHL career, Ryan Ellis was overshadowed by fellow Nashville Predators’ defensemen such as Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and former Predator Shea Weber. But after putting up career-best numbers (16 goals and 38 points) this season, the 26-year-old surged into this spring’s playoff spotlight.
Through 13 games, Ellis’ 10 points tied him for third with Josi for third among Predators’ scorers. He’s also tied with Josi for second among defensemen in playoff scoring. He’s playing well in his own zone, leading the Predators in blocked shots (35) and second in shorthanded time on ice per game (2 minutes and 21 seconds).
Ellis is using this postseason to finally emerge from the shadows of his better-known teammates. He’s now an important contributor to the Predators’ playoff success thus far.
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St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen struggled with his consistency during the 2016-17 regular season, finishing with a 2.42 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. However, the 26-year-old redeemed himself with a strong playoff performance.
Thanks to Allen’s exploits, the Blues eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the opening round in five games before falling in six games to the Nashville Predators in the second round. He finished second among postseason goalies in goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.935).
This season was Allen’s first as the Blues’ full-time starting goalie. Despite his up-and-down regular-season campaign, he flourished in the heat of playoff pressure. Those efforts suggest he’s made his long-awaited breakthrough as a reliable NHL starter.
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As the Edmonton Oilers reached the playoffs for the first time since 2006, superstar center Connor McDavid was expected to take a lead role in his first postseason appearance. While McDavid played well, teammate Leon Draisaitl stole his captain’s thunder with a strong breakout performance.
Like McDavid, the 21-year-old Draisaitl was a playoff rookie. Having tallied 77 points in the regular season, the 6’1″, 216-pounder proved just as lethal in the postseason. A center who often skated at right wing, Draisaitl led the Oilers with six goals and 10 assists for 16 points.
Draisaitl played a significant role in the Oilers’ advancing to within one game of the Western Conference Final before falling to the Anaheim Ducks. His efforts also carried him out of McDavid’s shadow, reminding the hockey world the Oilers carry two outstanding scorers on their roster.
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With 33 points in 40 games, Guentzel displayed considerable promise as a Penguins’ rookie in 2016-17. No one, however, foresaw his scoring exploits in his first NHL postseason. Those efforts could signal the emergence of another scoring star in Pittsburgh.
On a team carrying established offensive stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessell, the 22-year-old Guentzel is their top goal scorer. With nine goals in 15 games, he’s also tied with the Anaheim Ducks’ Jakob Silfverberg for the overall goal-scoring lead.
In the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final, the Ottawa Senators held Guentzel off the score sheet. However, he remains a key component of the Penguins’ offense. From overlooked rookie to skating on his club’s top line, Guentzel is the biggest breakout player of the 2017 playoffs.
All stats (as of May 17, 2017) via NHL.com. Player contract info via Cap Friendly.