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May 5, 2010
Who Steps Up When It Matters Most?
Playoff Shining Stars and Choke Artists

by Richard Pollock

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It's a basic sports question: Who shines under the brightest of lights and who folds? Every sport has players with big-game reputations, as well as those who seem to wilt under pressure.

In hockey, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby has already established himself firmly in the first category, showing an ability to rise to the occasion -- even after a bad game or series -- and lead his team to a victory. On the flip side, San Jose has had its fair share of underperformers, including captain Patrick Marleau.

So which of the NHL's elite are the biggest of the big-game players?

As a baseline to qualify here, players needed a minimum of 300 career regular-season games and 25 playoff games. We did focus this list on top-six forwards known to the common fan.

The sample size of playoff games, as opposed to regular-season games, is different. However, the information below nonetheless represents some significant achievements and drop-offs.

Shining Stars

1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins (55 career playoff games, 14 points in six games this postseason)

Sid the Kid is a career 1.36 points-per-game player in the regular season, which is tremendous in this day and age. What's more amazing, however, is that Crosby's career points-per-game through the first round of 2009-10 is 1.40. Keeping up your regular-season pace in the playoffs is one thing; keeping up a points-per-game pace in the playoffs is something else.

After picking up a gold medal in the Olympics, Crosby looks as if he wants to add a second Stanley Cup to his collection, as his dominating first-round performance took his stats to a new level.

2. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (27 career playoff games, nine points in six playoff games this postseason)

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were often compared to one another, but their primes did not coincide. Crosby and Ovechkin are entering the primes of their careers at the same time and in the same conference. Last season, their teams had to battle in order for the Penguins to advance to (and win) the Cup; due to the upset pulled off last night by the Montreal Canadiens, that won't happen again until at least next year.

How do Ovechkin's numbers compare to Crosby's? The great No. 8 has 1.33 career points per game in the regular season; in the playoffs it's 1.5 points per game. Crosby and Ovi play very different styles of hockey, but they have this in common: Their production only upticks when the games mean more. The larger question for Ovechkin to ponder this summer is why Crosby's team has outlasted his in each of their major encounters.

3. Johan Franzen, Detroit Red Wings (57 career playoff games, seven points in seven games this postseason)

Franzen's regular-season average is .514 points per game, essentially recording one point for every two games he plays. That's not anything to write home about, and there are more than a handful of NHL players who surpass such totals with relative ease. So what happens to the "Mule" during the playoffs? Franzen apparently turns into a different player, as the big Swedish sniper has posted 0.83 points per game in the playoffs. What's more, his goals per game increases from 0.29 to an impressive 0.43. Essentially, Franzen turns from an average player during the regular season into an elite goal scorer.

Trending Down

1. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings (104 career playoff games, eight points in seven games this postseason)

Datsyuk has arguably the best hands in the NHL. He has won the Stanley Cup on two occasions, yet he has a very poor playoff record. Datsyuk, a career 0.98 point-per-game player in the regular season, has not performed up to expectations in the postseason; his totals drop to 0.66. Datsyuk is arguably the best two-way forward in the NHL, though, which might account for some of his offensive drop-off. Based on Datsyuk's first round, including one of the highlight-film goals of the first round, he is intent on leaving this unenviable list behind.

2. Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks (82 career playoff games, three points in six games this postseason)

This one is fairly obvious, as Thornton has been the media's playoff whipping boy for essentially his entire career. The big center has a career points per game in the regular season of 1.02. In the playoffs? 0.68. This is not a one- or two-year struggle, either; the former Bruins center has never averaged over a point per game in the playoffs. For a player who is constantly over 1.00 points per game in the regular season, that says a lot.

3. Simon Gagne, Philadelphia Flyers (75 career playoff games, two points in four games this postseason)

While he is currently on the injured list -- although a return toward the end of the second round is expected -- Gagne has not had the most impressive playoff résumé. For the course of his career, dating back to 1999, Gagne has posted a regular-season points-per-game total of 0.79; in the playoffs it's a significant drop, to 0.49. He has scored more than 40 goals three times and has been very solid for Team Canada in international play; we're not listing him here as a "choke artist," simply as someone whose production does decline in the NHL postseason.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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