There's been plenty of talk in this series about the usual suspects that have stepped up their game and the usual suspects who haven't (paging Messrs Green, Semin and Fleischmann). It dominates pre- and post-game chatter, with analysts and various media types choosing to focus on the "big" names over the course of a series unless prompted to do otherwise.
Lost in all of that talk sometimes, however, are the role-players - guys who almost always become increasingly important in the playoffs. While blogs and more specialist sites can and do devote time to these workhorses, their efforts can often go unheralded. And yet when everyone else's superstars are finding that next level to the game, often it's these lesser-known players who become the difference-makers over the course of a series. This series has been no exception, with a couple of guys standing out as the all important unsung heroes.
One of them has definitely been Eric Belanger, who may not stand out as an offensive juggernaut thus far but who is contributing in other ways - most notably in the faceoff circle. Faceoffs aren’t flashy and they don’t always result in goals, but for a team that bases its system on puck possession, the most important part is often…well, possessing the puck, starting with the faceoff. It helps that the Caps are facing a Montreal team that has struggled overall on draws, but Belanger has excelled above and beyond expected, with a win percentage at a truly sexy 68.8% - best in the playoffs so far.
Oh, and there was that little issue with the teeth that has forever cemented his legend as a true badass. The Dentist is definitely in.
At the other end of the ice, the standout hasn’t been Jeff Schultz or Mike Green as expected (at least not in a good way) – it’s been Tom Poti, who has quietly been the best defenseman for Washington all series long. His fight with Scott Gomez in Game 2 could be looked at as a turning point for the series should the Caps emerge victorious; it got Gomez off the ice for five minutes and resulted in what is probably the first ever "PO-TI! PO-TI!" chant to fill the Verizon Center.
Fisticuffs aside, he’s been on the ice for just three goals against, including just one at even strength, and is a League-leading +9 - just one ahead of teammate and defensive partner John Carlson. Sure, his attempts at clearing the zone on the PK are still troubling and have contributed to at least one power play goal against, but he’s been steady – and at times brilliant – on a team that has sometimes shown just a passing interest in playing defense this series.
Wrapping up the trio is a guy who should just get "unsung hero" tattooed on his rear end because of all the little things he does right, and often without fanfare. Benched for the Game 2 of the series, Boyd Gordon was reinserted into the Game 3 lineup as a speedier upgrade for David Steckel and made an impact almost immediately, kicking off the scoring with a beautiful shorthanded tally. He added an equally beautiful pass on a second shorthanded goal in Game 4 that killed the momentum – and the crowd’s energy – in the dying seconds of a period the Habs had dominated. And besides his offensive prowess, Gordon’s been on the ice for four Washington goals and exactly zero from Montreal, is a +3, has won 77.1% of his faceoffs and has a very un-Gordon-like eight shots through three games.
The Caps have plenty of star power to go around, and we'll hopefully have a chance to see that on display as the playoffs continue. But for a team with Cup aspirations, it's guys like this - like Belanger, Poti, Gordon and others - who could be the key.