Ranking the top 5 impact playoff rookies 

March, 23, 2011

When I think about this season's freshman class and who among its players could make a difference come playoff time, I immediately think of the masked men. In the East, the Washington Capitals' Michal Neuvirth and the Philadelphia Flyers' Sergei Bobrovsky figure to play some sort of role -- perhaps a major one -- for the top two teams in the conference.

On Tuesday night in Philly, the two kid goalies faced each other. The result: Capitals 5, Flyers 4 in a shootout. Neuvirth got the win, while Bobrovsky got the hook (in the second period, he surrendered three goals on just nine shots) but not the loss. Flyers vet Brian Boucher, who came off the bench to replace Bobrovsky, was tagged with the L after coughing up a late lead.

I suspect these two young goalkeepers could be staring down the rink at each other again sometime later in the spring. A playoff showdown between the Flyers and Caps could be epic!

In the West, Chicago's Corey Crawford is backstopping his team's Stanley Cup defense. Heck, Crawford is probably the biggest reason that the Hawks even have a chance to defend their crown. If he didn't emerge to take the starting job from struggling veteran Marty Turco, the Hawks would be watching the playoffs on a flat-screen.

And, behind the glass that says "break in case of emergency," Vancouver Canucks rookie stopper Cory Schneider appears ready for the Cup challenge if starter Roberto Luongo is sidelined by injury. Still, I'm pretty sure head coach Alain Vigneault is hoping it doesn't come to that.

Among skaters, high-profile rookies like Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, Capitals defenseman John Carlson, San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture and Buffalo Sabres forward Tyler Ennis will all be appearing in their second postseasons. Those four guys all received significant playoff minutes last spring, and they will be even more important to their respective teams during this go-round.

However, there still are some rookie skaters who will be appearing in their first postseasons. How will they react? I figure that some will thrive, while others might wilt. That's the nature of life in the playoff pressure cooker.

With those newcomers in mind, here are five true freshmen who might catch your eye when the playoff party gets cranked up in April:

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.