When I think of NHL playoff heroes, I think of John Druce, Chris Kontos and Petr Klima, not Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.
It’s not as if Gretzky, Howe and Orr didn’t light it up in the postseason. Gretzky has held the NHL record for most points in a playoff season (47 in 18 games) for 32 years. Howe posted 160 points in 157 career NHL playoff games. We’ve all seen the photo of Orr flying through the air like Superman after scoring the Cup-clinching goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970.
But what I enjoy most about the playoffs is the long history of unheralded players rising up and making extraordinary contributions.
Druce was far from being a star player. But in 1990, he scored 14 goals in 15 playoff games to help the Washington Capitals reach the Eastern Conference Final. He played in 38 other playoff games during his career, and tallied three goals.
Kontos played only 230 games, but he was the talk of the playoffs one season when he netted nine goals in 11 games to lead a Los Angeles Kings team that also included Gretzky into the second round.
Then there was Klima. He ended one of the longest Stanley Cup final games in 1990 by scoring at 15:13 of the third overtime period. While everyone on the ice was near exhaustion, Klima had fresh legs. Edmonton Oilers coach John Muckler had benched him for much of the game because Klima didn’t play the gritty, complete style that coaches desire in the playoffs.
It’s the stories of the unlikely heroes that make the NHL playoffs fascinating.
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Defenseman Niclas Wallin, who totaled 21 goals in 11 NHL seasons, mostly with the Carolina Hurricanes, scored three playoff OT goals. That’s the same number of overtime goals that scoring legends Mike Bossy and Brett Hull own.
Stay-at-home defenseman Ken Morrow, a key member of the New York Islanders’ dynasty in the 1980s, only scored 17 regular-season goals in 10 seasons. But he had 11 playoff goals, including three OT goals, in 127 playoff games.
The playoffs are following the unexpected hero script this season. Three of the first eight games have been decided in overtime, and the goal scorers have been Joel Edmundson (St. Louis), Melker Karlsson (San Jose) and Tom Wilson (Washington).
Are any of those the players you anticipated being in the spotlight this spring?
Defenseman Edmundson has four goals in 136 regular-season games and Karlsson had 11 goals this season. Wilson is known more as a fighter than a scorer. He had seven goals this season, and this was his first career playoff tally. Tanner Glass (New York Rangers) had the game-winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens, and he spent the majority of the year in the American Hockey League.
Everyone loves stories of regular guys becoming the man of the hour. We tune into the playoffs because they are unpredictable.
One of the NHL’s best unsung hero stories centers on Mud Bruneteau. He had been in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings for two weeks in 1936 when he scored at 16:30 of the sixth overtime to beat the Montreal Maroons 1-0 and end the longest playoff game in NHL history.
That record has been standing for 81 years. I’ve said I don’t want to retire until I see that record broke. I’ve been USA TODAY Sports’ hockey reporter for 31 years and I'm still waiting for it to happen.