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Neutral Zone Wrap: Season-ending standouts

by | Rotowire.com
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(NOTE: Stats from games ending Thursday March 31st.)

As the countdown begins to the end of the regular season, it's time to take a look at who is peaking heading into hockey's next stage. Some can be found on clubs fighting to get in or keep others out, while others shine with the reality they'll be doing something other than hockey by mid-April. Whether they're primed for the postseason or ready for some rust and relaxation, many skaters still have that drive to excel and can take advantage of a situation or a less motivated opponent.

Don't think of this column as a playoff preview, as there will be a comprehensive review before the first round. This should only serve as the appetizer, a primer to whet the senses for the upcoming three months. Naturally, none of the superstars or players owned in most leagues will be listed since they're known commodities. And no more than one player per lineup. As well, whoever was mentioned in the last column with respect to next year's risers will also be omitted to avoid repetition.

So while we still have your waning attention, take a look at those who seem to be boosting their effort recently. Great for those NHL clubs still in it; not so much for the non-contenders who would've liked seeing this earlier:

Erik Cole/Tuomo Ruutu, F, Carolina

Every poolie should know by now how much Cole loves Carolina. Take him out of the state and watch his production plummet (27 points in 63 contests). OK, so that was only one season with Edmonton but one could clearly see how homesick he was feeling. Since his return to the site of his only Cup victory, Cole (six in his last six) has once again teamed with Eric Staal to form a deadly duo. Among the Hurricanes' other weapons is Ruutu, who shouldn't be mistaken for older brother Jarkko. The Finn never did much before arriving on the Southeast coast, but Ruutu has built a fine resume in three seasons. His latest hot streak (also at six in six) has helped Carolina edge closer to a playoff berth.

Ray Emery, G, Anaheim

If you haven't been following NHL news over the last month, then you've missed a lot. A bunch of teams have made awesome runs, although most will come up short. That Sidney Crosby guy still hasn't returned from his New Years' slumber. And Ray Emery has dominated in net since Jonas Hiller (vertigo) went down. Yes, the same Emery who showed up to practice on a snowmobile and got into a scuffle with his KHL team trainer. The former Senator and Flyer has looked mighty as a Duck (6-0, 1.90 GAA, .935 SV%), which bodes well should Anaheim reach the playoffs since Hiller's condition may not allow him to play again this season.

Torrey Mitchell, F, San Jose

With the bulk of the forward attention reserved for The Big Four (and a bit of rookie Logan Couture), it's easy to miss other notable accomplishments. Although Mitchell barely receives any power-play time, he still contributes where it matters (four goals in eight). Even though his spot alongside a big name isn't guaranteed, Mitchell's willingness to improve and give it his all should keep him in the black. And if the Sharks finally want to reach the Final, they'll need a balanced effort throughout the squad.

Kevin Shattenkirk, D, St. Louis

Blues fans thought management had gone bonkers when they shipped projected captain Erik Johnson to Colorado for Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart. It's been over a month since the trade went down, but nobody in St. Louis has been complaining. The team knew they were foregoing Johnson's excellent overall ability, but they also realized the two new acquisitions could provide significant potential. And neither has disappointed, as both are currently riding five-game point streaks. At 22, Shattenkirk should continue to build a well-rounded game and join Alex Pietrangelo in their future domination of the league.

Marc Staal, D, NY Rangers

Bryan McCabe and Dan Girardi are expected to carry the defenseman scoring load, but Staal has shown flashes of usefulness in the opposing end (four assists in six). Never known to be a major offensive threat, but his reliability keeps him high on the depth chart and the shift count. With the Rangers battling for the 7th/8th spot, Staal has been offered an expanded PP role – something he hasn't handled since his junior days.

Blake Wheeler, F, Atlanta

The Thrashers haven't experienced postseason action since 2007 but at least they possess several key tools to ensure future success. One of the newest pieces is Wheeler, who first got his break after being forgotten by Phoenix following three years in the NCAA. Boston didn't really like his decline from a 45-point rookie season, but Atlanta obviously saw something special in the 24-year old winger. In 17 games with his new club, Wheeler has notched 13 points and looks to be a natural in the Thrashers' high-speed, high-power attack.

Honorable mention: Matt Carle/Andrej Meszaros, D, Philadelphia; Sergei Kostitsyn, F, Nashville; Alec Martinez, D, Los Angeles; Dominic Moore, F, Tampa Bay; Jason Pominville/Drew Stafford, F, Buffalo; James Reimer, G, Toronto

Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at eberofsky@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).

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Player News
Carter Ashton
Suspension Over For Leafs' Ashton
Carter Ashton, RW, TOR
12/20/2014
News: Carter Ashton has completed his 20-game suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing substances protocol and has been reinstated onto the Leafs' active roster, James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail reports. He will now head to AHL Toronto for a conditioning stint, according to David Alter of MapleLeafs.com.
Analysis: Since he hasn't been able to play since early November, Carter Ashton will likely spend multiple games on the assignment before he's called back up to the parent club. Ashton had largely served as a healthy scratch for the Leafs prior to his suspension, making just six appearances on the season. He'll likely see limited duty again once he rejoins the Leafs.

Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers To Start Lundqvist On Saturday
Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR
12/20/2014
News: Henrik Lundqvist will be between the pipes Saturday against the Hurricanes.
Analysis: Coach Alain Vigneault is expected to split the starts between Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot for the team's weekend back-to-back, but that plan could change if King Henrik submits a dominant outing Saturday. Given that Lundqvist is riding a four-game winning streak and will be facing a Carolina squad that ranks second-last in the league with 21 points, he should be viewed as one of the better goalie plays on the Saturday slate.

Jordie Benn
Stars Rule Out Jordie Benn For Friday
Jordie Benn, D, DAL
12/20/2014
News: Jordie Benn (illness) has been ruled out from playing Friday against the Flames, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reports.
Analysis: Jordie Benn was participated in the Stars' morning skate Friday, but coach Lindy Ruff decided to err on the side of caution and give him another day to recover from the illness. Jamie Oleksiak will join the lineup in Benn's stead.

Christian Ehrhoff
Pens' Ehrhoff Has Lower-Body Injury
Christian Ehrhoff, D, PIT
12/20/2014
News: Coach Mike Johnston said Friday that Christian Ehrhoff was suffering from a lower-body injury and remains under evaluation, Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
Analysis: With the extent of Christian Ehrhoff's injury unknown at this time, the blueliner's status remains in limbo for Saturday's game against the Panthers. Brian Dumoulin would likely draw into the lineup Saturday in the event Ehrhoff is deemed unavailable.

Tuukka Rask
Bruins To Start Rask On Friday
Tuukka Rask, G, BOS
12/20/2014
News: Tuukka Rask will be in the crease for the Bruins on Friday in Winnipeg, Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun reports.
Analysis: Since Tuukka Rask received the night off in the Bruins' last game Wednesday against the Wild, he'll slot back into the net in search of putting an end to his three-game losing streak. He's been a victim of some poor offensive support in the last two games of that stretch, as he's stopped 67-of-71 shots (.943 save percentage) in shootout defeats to the Senators and Predators. He'll oppose the Jets' Michael Hutchinson in Friday's tilt.

Jeff Schultz
Kings Call Up Schultz On Friday
Jeff Schultz, D, LA
12/20/2014
News: Jeff Schultz was recalled from AHL Manchester on Friday, Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider reports.
Analysis: The Kings promoted Jeff Schultz in the wake of the hand injury suffered by Robyn Regehr on Thursday, which will sideline him for two-to-three weeks. Jamie McBain is expected to assume a regular spot in the Kings' lineup during that time, while Schultz figures to serve primarily as the team's seventh blueliner.

Robyn Regehr
Kings' Regehr On IR, Ruled Out 2-3 Weeks
Robyn Regehr, D, LA
12/20/2014
News: Robyn Regehr's upper-body injury is related to his hand and will keep him out for two-to-three weeks, NHL.com's Curtis Zupke reports. The Kings placed him on injured reserve Friday.
Analysis: Robyn Regehr suffered the injury in the second period of Thursday's victory over the Blues, likely when he collided with Paul Stastny. It's the second noteworthy injury Regehr has dealt with this season, as he previously missed just over a week in November with an undisclosed ailment. Jamie McBain figures to assume a regular spot on the Kings' defense while Regehr is sidelined.

Cam Talbot
Rangers Ink Talbot To One-Year Extension
Cam Talbot, G, NYR
12/20/2014
News: Cam Talbot signed a one-year, $1.45 million extension with the Rangers on Friday, Larry Brooks of the New York Post reports.
Analysis: The new deal will keep Cam Talbot under contract through the end of the 2015-16 campaign. It was an easy decision for the Rangers to retain Talbot for another year, as he's performed as one of the league's best backups since taking the reins of the role last season. Over his 28 career regular-season appearances (25 starts), Talbot is 14-9-0 with a 1.80 GAA, .936 save percentage, and five shutouts.

Mirco Mueller
Sharks' Mueller To Participate In World Juniors
Mirco Mueller, D, SJ
12/20/2014
News: Mirco Mueller is expected to leave the Sharks in the coming days to play for Team Sweden in the World Junior Championships, CSN Bay Area's Kevin Kurz reports.
Analysis: The tournament will run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, so look for Mirco Mueller to return to the Sharks at the end of the competition or when his team is eliminated. The 19-year-old has been a healthy scratch in six of the Sharks' last nine games, so he'll likely benefit from picking up more regular ice time during the tournament.

Brad Boyes
Panthers' Boyes Practices Friday
Brad Boyes, RW, FLA
1:30 PM
News: Brad Boyes (upper body) was present during Friday's practice, George Richards of the Miami Herald reports.
Analysis: While Brad Boyes' participation in on-ice activities Friday is seemingly a good sign, coach Gerard Gallant was reluctant to declare him ready to play Saturday in Pittsburgh. The team should reach a decision on his status following their morning skate that day.

 
 
 
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