The Stanley Cup Playoffs is where relatively unknown grinders have been known to turn into superheroes. It happened again Thursday night when two-way force Joel Ward, who has a history of clutch postseason performances, turned in yet another when he scored the game-winner with 1.3 seconds left in regulation against the Rangers.
The goal stunned New York, silenced the Madison Square Garden crowd, and elevated the Washington Capitals to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. But his heroics came as no surprise to a sport piled high with unlikely heroes throughout its history.
Ward signed with the Minnesota Wild as an undrafted free agent in 2006, but has since gone on to become one of the NHL's clutch playoff performers. In 2011 with the Nashville Predators, he netted 13 points in 12 playoff games, far exceeding the 29 points he posted during 80 regular-season games. The next spring, as a utility member of the Capitals, Ward scored a Game 7 winner that eliminated the Boston Bruins. He had just six goals that entire season.
Ward was there again Thursday night, carrying forward a long tradition of athletes who save their best for the biggest moments. NHL playoff history is packed with players like Ward, hard-working glue guys that step up at the most crucial moments.
Here’s a look back at five more unlikely playoff heroes.
Lanny McDonald, 1989 Calgary Flames
McDonald, the team captain, was a healthy scratch in Game 3, 4, and 5 of the Stannley Cup Final. Imagine: the team's captain in the stands for crucial Cup games. But the 35-year-old who had 11 goals during the season (and 576 in his career) got to dress for Game 6. He scored the final goal of his career in that game and lifted the Cup for the first time later that night.
Matthew Barnaby, 1998 Buffalo Sabres
Among the wildest and most hated agitators in NHL history, Barnaby was scary looking with Buffalo Sabres caps on his two front teeth. But in 1998, instead of fisticuffs, Barnaby's hands produced a Mother’s Day hat trick early in the series sweep against Montreal. And, yes, his mom was in the stands for it.
Ruslan Fedotenko, 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning
Known by teammates simply as "Tank," Fedotenko was built and played like one. In Game 7 against the Calgary Flames, Tank scored Tampa's only two goals in a 2-1 Cup-clinching victory. Not bad for a guy that scored three winners the entire season that year.
Fernando Pisani, 2006 Edmonton Oilers
He scored in 14 playoff games during Edmonton's run to the Cup Final, including this shorthanded Game 5 overtime winner with the Oilers facing elimination. Edmonton eventually lost the series in seven.
Max Talbot, 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
Talbot scored eight goals during the regular season, but the checker overshadowed superstar teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin by tossing in two goals, including the winner, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.