The Unsung Heroes: Kiwanuka, Pouha, Girardi, Elias & Nielsen

Let's take a timeout from all the losing that's been going on and take a look at some positive performances.

Everybody loves a star. They get all the press, they get all the accolades and they get all the glory. Of course, they get the blame, too, but when things go right for their team, they're front and center when game recaps are written, highlights are shown and games are chronicled. But somewhere behind the star are a group of players who do the dirty work or the little things that may go unnoticed. They quietly go about their business, performing the role assigned, and are usually just as important in a victory as their golden-boy teammates. There are plenty of New York/New Jersey athletes who fit that criteria this season, but here are five locals, a member of each football team and the three hockey teams, who are grinding it out on the field/ice, and also putting up some stats.

Mathias Kiwanuka: The defensive ends on the New York Giants get all the acclaim and recognition, with Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora piling up sacks left and right (though Justin Tuck is having a frustrating, injury-filled season). But with the team's lack of depth at the linebacker position, Kiwanuka selflessly switched positions (ok, he really didn't have any choice), and has little by little gotten acclimated to playing behind the linemen. He's been racking up tackles (59, ranked third on the team), plus getting his share of sacks (four), and he came up with a key interception against the Patriots and a forced fumble in the win over the Bills. He was also one of the lone competent players in Sunday night's loss to the Eagles. Yes, he's better against the run than the pass, but Kiwanuka's production has been a big boost to what has been a weak spot for the defense over the past few seasons.

Sione Pouha: Not much has gone right for the New York Jets the last two weeks, but that doesn't mean we can't shine a light on at least one bright spot for the team this season. Pouha's been an immovable force and the glue that holds the defensive line together. With Shaun Ellis gone and Mike DeVito missing a few games this year, Pouha's presence has been that much more important. He was a hero in the dominating performance against Buffalo, with seven tackles and a forced fumble, and he helped stop the Broncos' running game (well, for 55 minutes), with seven tackles, as well. He's fifth on the team with 40 tackles.

Dan Girardi: We knew he was good, but this good? Girardi's spent all season filling in for Marc Staal as the team's No. 1 defenseman, and he's been playing up to a No. 1 defenseman's level. Along with Ryan McDonagh, who's stepped into Girardi's old role, he's been effective in shutting down the opposition's top lines, helping the New York Rangers to a third-in-the-league-ranked 2.07 GAA. Girardi's become the iron man of the league, leading the NHL in minutes played with 27:49 a game, and he's blocked 45 shots, has 41 hits and is a plus-6. He's also chipped in with some offense, scoring three goals and adding five assists. Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Henrik Lundqvist may be the players who get listed on the All-Star ballot, but Girardi's been the most important player on the team this season (well, along with Lundqvist, but the goalie's the most important player every year). Not bad for somebody who wasn't even drafted.

Patrik Elias: Ok, the veteran winger/sometime center is really a star, but with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk around, not to mention Martin Brodeur, Elias takes a back seat to those guys. But this season, he's been the most consistent and most trustworthy player for the New Jersey Devils (ok, he was one of the culprits in Monday's pulling-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss). He leads the team in points (19), picking up the slack for all the injured players and underperformers, and he's added three power-play goals and a shorthanded one as well. Elias is also tied for the team lead in plus/minus, at plus-2. As Mr. Devil sets franchise records left and right, he's quietly been the team's unsung hero this year.

Frans Nielsen: Ed Westfall was inducted into the New York Islanders Hall of Fame this past Saturday, so we'll choose a defensive-minded forward in tribute to that legendary Islander. The mild mannered center from Denmark may not be physical, but he takes care of much of the unglamorous chores for his team. He's one of the best penalty killers in the league, exemplified by his 5-on-3 swipe of the puck, breaking up a play in front of the net against the Rangers last week. Though he's yet to score a shorthanded goal this year, he had seven last season. Nielsen plays on the power play (two assists), he has 17 blocked shots, he's a solid two-way center and his minus-1 almost leads the team (which tells you how the season's been going for the Islanders). And he's yet to sit in the penalty box this year, so he certainly doesn't hurt his team by taking stupid penalties.

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