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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
Alex Stalock
Sharks' Stalock To Start Sunday
Alex Stalock, G, SJ
12:43 AM
News: Alex Stalock will start in the goal Sunday against the Rangers, David Pollak of the Mercury News reports.
Analysis: Alex Stalock has put up a couple of solid starts so far this season, and will look for another one Sunday, where he will continue his quest to earn the team's starting spot.

Victor Hedman
Bolts' Hedman Out Four Games
Victor Hedman, D, TB
12:36 AM
News: Victor Hedman (upper body) is expected to miss the rest of the Lightning's road trip, the team's official site reports.
Analysis: Victor Hedman suffered an undisclosed upper body injury in Saturday's game, where it appeared he took a puck off his hand. If he is indeed out for the remained of the road trip, he will not return until October 28 against Arizona.

Kevin Hayes
Rangers' Hayes Records First Career Goal
Kevin Hayes, RW, NYR
10/19/2014
News: Kevin Hayes tallied his first career point, a goal, in a 4-0 win over the Sharks on Sunday.
Analysis: The rookie has quickly been climbing up the organizational ranks, and centered the second line on Sunday with Rick Nash and Chris Kreider. It's likely not a permanent position, and though he won just five of his 14 faceoffs, he did record the team's fourth goal.

Martin St. Louis
Rangers' St. Louis Nets Goal In Win
Martin St. Louis, RW, NYR
10/19/2014
News: Martin St. Louis scored, his first of the season, in a 4-0 win over the Sharks on Sunday.
Analysis: After struggling in the regular season after being traded to the Rangers last season, scoring just once in 19 games, this was just his second as a Blueshirt. He still managed to end up with 30 goals though, and should be one of the better point scorers again this season.

Luke Gazdic
Oilers' Gazdic Still Two Weeks Away
Luke Gazdic, LW, EDM
10/19/2014
News: Luke Gazdic (shoulder) believes he is still a couple of weeks away from playing, according to the Oilers Web Site.
Analysis: Luke Gazdic has been cleared for contact and has been taking part in practice but still needs to work off the rust and get into game shape.

Carl Hagelin
Rangers' Hagelin Scores In Win
Carl Hagelin, LW, NYR
10/19/2014
News: Carl Hagelin scored the opening goal of a 4-0 win over the Sharks on Sunday.
Analysis: After setting a career high in goals last season with 17, Carl Hagelin had yet to record a point this season until Sunday. Hagelin could have some fantasy value if he can improve on his point totals from last season, but his slow start is worth keeping an eye before taking a chance on him.

Kevin Klein
Rangers' Klein Receives Stitches For Facial Injury
Kevin Klein, D, NYR
10/19/2014
News: Kevin Klein received stitches on his chin after being struck by a puck in Sunday's game against the Sharks, Jim Cerny of the Rangers' official website reports.
Analysis: Kevin Klein played most of the game before suffering the injury late in the third period. He is considered day-to-day, so it remains to be seen if he will be available for the Rangers' next game Tuesday.

Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers' Lundqvist Stellar In Shutout
Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR
10/19/2014
News: Henrik Lundqvist saved all 33 shots he faced in a 4-0 win over the Sharks on Sunday.
Analysis: After a pair of poor outings, Henrik Lundqvist appears to be back on track allowing just one goal in wins in his last two games. It was his first shutout of the season, and he should be back in net on Tuesday against the Devils.

Dan Girardi
Rangers' Girardi Considered Day-to-Day
Dan Girardi, D, NYR
10/19/2014
News: Dan Girardi is considered day-to-day after receiving stitches in his foot following Sunday's game, Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News reports.
Analysis: Dan Girardi required stitches after being struck by a puck while blocking a shot. A decision on his status for the Rangers' next contest Tuesday will likely be made on game day.

Paul Stastny
Blues' Stastny Week-to-Week With Shoulder Injury
Paul Stastny, C, STL
10/19/2014
News: Paul Stastny is considered week-to-week due to his shoulder injury, Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.
Analysis: Paul Stastny's recovery timetable remains somewhat vague, but it appears he will miss more than just a game or two. Following Sunday's game, the Blues play four more games before October comes to a close.

 
 
 
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