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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
Brendan Gallagher
Montreal's Gallagher Scores In Loss
Brendan Gallagher, RW, MON
12:00 PM
News: Brendan Gallagher scored his 18th goal of the season and was plus-1 in Thursday night's 4-3 shootout loss to the Kings.
Analysis: Brendan Gallagher is enjoying life since his move to the top line -- that's the place to be for a Canadien forward. He has nine points (five goals, four assists) in the previous eight games.

Ryan Murphy
Return Date Still Uncertain For Canes' Murphy
Ryan Murphy, D, CAR
12:56 AM
News: Coach Bill Peters said Thursday that Ryan Murphy (leg) is still facing an uncertain return date.
Analysis: The Hurricanes were expected to have a clearer idea of Ryan Murphy's timetable by this point in the week, but it appears they weren't able to gain the clarity they were looking for. Peters did mention that the Hurricanes won't rush Murphy back into action until they're confident he can play on a regular basis, so the blueliner may need to log multiple days of practices in a row before he's activated from IR.

Teuvo Teravainen
Chicago's Teravainen Likely To Be Scratched Friday
Teuvo Teravainen, LW, CHI
12:52 AM
News: Teuvo Teravainen is expected to serve as a healthy scratch Friday against the Oilers, Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago reports.
Analysis: It sounds like coach Joel Quenneville is itching to get a look at the recently acquired Andrew Desjardins, so he'll slot into the lineup for his Blackhawks debut while Teuvo Teravainen heads to the press box. Teravainen was expected to be the main ice time beneficiary in the wake of Patrick Kane's long-term injury, but he hasn't played more than 14 minutes in the three games since his call-up.

Michael Latta
Caps' Latta Out Thursday
Michael Latta, C, WAS
12:32 AM
News: Michael Latta (upper body) will not play Thursday against the Wild.
Analysis: The Capitals are still listing Michael Latta as day-to-day with the injury, but since he failed to participate in the team's morning skate, he'll be held out of the lineup Thursday. Brooks Laich will rejoin the lineup to replace Latta.

Tuukka Rask
Bruins Expected To Roll With Rask On Thursday
Tuukka Rask, G, BOS
12:32 AM
News: Tuukka Rask is in line to start Thursday's game against the Flames, the Calgary Sun reports.
Analysis: With the Bruins clinging to the No. 2 wild card seed in the Eastern Conference, Tuukka Rask figures to remain busy going forward, though it's worth noting that the team has back-to-back contests this weekend, against the Flyers on Saturday and the Red Wings on Sunday.

Corey Crawford
Hawks Turn To Crawford On Friday
Corey Crawford, G, CHI
12:24 AM
News: Corey Crawford is slated to start Friday's game against the Oilers, ESPN Chicago reports.
Analysis: Corey Crawford, who has won his last two starts, will take aim Friday at an Oilers squad that remains in last place in the Western Conference, with 46 points in 64 games to date.

Tim Erixon
Leafs' Erixon Iffy For Thursday
Tim Erixon, D, TOR
12:19 AM
News: Tim Erixon (illness) is questionable to play Thursday against the Lightning, TSN's Jonas Siegel reports.
Analysis: Tim Erixon, who was claimed on waivers from Chicago on Sunday, suited up for his first game in a Toronto uniform on Tuesday, seeing 15:52 worth of ice time in the process.

Alex Burrows
Canucks' Burrows Slated To Play Thursday
Alex Burrows, LW, VAN
12:07 AM
News: Alex Burrows (groin) was a full participant at the Canucks' morning skate and looks in line to play Thursday against the Coyotes, Jeff Paterson of TSN 1040 reports.
Analysis: Alex Burrows resumed skating with the team Monday after first suffering the groin injury about two weeks ago. He skated as a member of the Canucks' second line and saw duty on the top power-play unit during Thursday's morning skate, a likely indicator that the team considers him fit to play. The winger has been about a half-point-per-game contributor when he's been healthy enough to suit up this season, notching 12 goals and 13 assists in 52 games.

Tyler Seguin
Stars' Seguin Progressing Well
Tyler Seguin, C, DAL
12:06 AM
News: Tyler Seguin (knee) is making progress toward a return to action, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reports.
Analysis: While a specific timetable for his return to action has yet to be outlined, the center appears to be ahead of schedule on that front. "Tyler is really closing in on 'day-to-day' for us," coach Lindy Ruff said of Tyler Seguin, who was on the ice with his teammates Thursday. "So I would say probably within a week, or sooner. It depends on how he responds to some heavy workouts here today and tomorrow."

Zack Kassian
Canucks' Kassian Back In Thursday
Zack Kassian, RW, VAN
12:00 AM
News: Zack Kassian (illness) will return to the lineup Thursday against the Coyotes, Jeff Paterson of TSN 1040 reports.
Analysis: Zack Kassian was forced to skip Tuesday's game against the Sharks after coming down with a stomach flu. He received an IV to treat the illness, which apparently was enough to aid his recovery. The winger assumed his usual spot on the top line with the Sedin twins, an arrangement that should make him an attractive, cost-effective play in daily formats, particularly against an Arizona squad that ranks 30th in goals allowed.

 
 
 
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