Pivotal players

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:17 PM ET

Every NHL team throws big bucks at their superstar players and expects them to lead the way to glory. Here's a collection of 10 skaters and stoppers who need to be at their best or their clubs won't be up to the test this spring.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins

In case anyone forgot, Sid the Kid is still the best player in hockey. But he's nowhere to be found among the league's scoring leaders after missing one-third of the season with a high-ankle sprain suffered on Jan. 18 against Tampa Bay. In his absence, the Pens didn't just stay afloat, but rose to the upper tier of the Eastern Conference standings by riding the offensive coattails of emerging star Evgeni Malkin. But no one in the Steel City truly believes the Penguins will be able to muster any success in the playoffs without their captain back to his world-class ways. If he's completely healthy, he's deadly. If he's at his best, Pittsburgh is scary. At this point, he's certainly well rested and ready for a long playoff run.

Joe Thornton, Sharks

San Jose's slick star has simulation on his side. Back in September, EA Sports -- the Vancouver-based video game company that routinely churns out a popular NHL platform for systems such as XBox and Sony PlayStation -- played out the 2007-08 campaign and let electronics decide the fate. Their findings? The Sharks will win this year's Stanley Cup and the golden-locked St. Thomas, Ont., native will cop the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. San Jose is the sexy pick. Since Thornton went West Coast, the Sharks have been in the hunt, but never sunk their teeth into the ultimate prize. If only they could live up to their computerized calling, they'll get jaws flapping that the Cup will stay close to the Pacific.

Alexei Kovalev, Canadiens

He just put together the best offensive season by a Hab in a decade. He was the leading scorer on a Montreal team that surprised everybody this year. He's surrounded by young guys, but the expectations are still sky-high. At 35, he's one of the team leaders and he'll have to fill a big void created by a late-season injury to captain Saku Koivu. No pressure, eh? So the puck world spins for Kovalev, loathed one day by the Bell Centre faithful and loved the next. He has 17 career points in 17 playoff games with Montreal and already has a Stanley Cup to his credit with the New York Rangers in 1994. The Habs' title drought dates back one more year -- to 1993 -- and fans hope Kovalev can lead the way back for Les Glorieux.

Peter Forsberg, Avalanche

He's the biggest X-factor in these playoffs. After 17 seasons of serious wear and tear, Forsberg's creaky frame is so wracked with woe that his playing status is forever sealed as "day-to-day." Not many believe he's still actually playing, and based on what Peter the Great said for the past year, maybe he doesn't, either. He had foot surgery and claimed he wouldn't be back in the NHL. After healing, he said he would likely stick to one of his three former teams -- Philadelphia, where he missed the 2006 playoffs, Nashville, where he only lasted five playoff games last year, and Colorado, the site of his two Stanley Cup wins. He signed with the Avs on Feb. 25 and then suffered a groin injury. But he came back in time to help Colorado cement a playoff spot and this team is much more dangerous with him than without him.

Dion Phaneuf, Flames

The big defenceman was still in junior hockey with the Red Deer Rebels when Calgary made its stunning run to the Stanley Cup finals four years ago. Is another one in store this season? The Flames will need their standout blueliner to provide the answer for that one. He can put up the points, he can dole out punishment and he does it with a lot less suspension drama than Anaheim's Chris Pronger. He has two goals in 10 career playoff appearances and just signed a six-year extension last month so he's not going anywhere for a while.

Zach Parise, Devils

Sure, the Devils can only go as far as goalie Martin Brodeur can take them. But they still need someone to pop the big goal and no one does that better in Jersey than the son of former Minnesota North Star Jean-Paul Parise. Zach is coming off back-to-back 30-goal campaigns. He scored seven times in 11 playoff games last year. He isn't big, but he hustles and leads with a maturity beyond his 23 years. This is a Devil of a team to have to face in the playoffs and Brent Sutter knows who to tap on the shoulder when it's crunch time.

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

The most-prolific goal-scorer in the game today. Don't make any plans for the Rocket Richard Trophy to go anywhere for a while because this guy simply knows how to put the puck in the net. For those who pine for the '80s heydays of 70-goal scorers, Ovechkin is making it look like retro times are here again. Many hockey observers were rooting for the Caps to qualify for the playoffs simply because they thought it would be good for the game to have the Russian sensation keep playing. He scores highlight-reel goals and he celebrates them like he'll never score another. Although he will -- often.

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers

The sweet Swede played well enough this year to earn a six-year contract extension this year, good news for a Madison Square Garden faithful that hasn't seen this many shutouts from a goalie since Ed Giacomin nearly 40 years ago. He has been the best puckstopper in the Big Apple since Mike Richter. Ron Hextall and Lundqvist are the only two goalies to win at least 30 games in each of their their first three NHL seasons. He was in net for Sweden's 2006 Olympic gold medal, led the Rangers to a playoff win over Atlanta last year and is a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate.

Marian Gaborik, Wild

He has won the NHL's fastest skater competition. He has scored five goals in a game. He has been the offensive face of a hockey team known for playing defence, if anything at all. Gaborik has scored 30 goals four times and topped the 40-goal mark this year. He popped three goals in five playoff games last year, but Minnesota still went out in the first round. In the Wild's most successful playoff run of 2003, the 26-year-old Slovak had nine goals and 17 points before falling to the then Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Western Conference final. To get back, he has to be his team's best player.

Jason Spezza, Senators

At the start of the season, everyone was picking Ottawa to reach the Stanley Cup final again. A fired coach and goalie controversy later, no one is. Spezza co-led the 2007 NHL playoff scoring race with his teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley -- all with 22 points. Spezza signed a large, seven-year deal in November for his ability to put up big numbers and it's the stats that tell his regular-season story. When he racks up points, Ottawa wins. When he struggles, they lose. Unlike the Sens' other two forward stars this year, Spezza scored just as much on the road as he did at home, a positive because Ottawa won't have much home-ice advantage this year.


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