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Neutral Zone Wrap: Leaders of the pack

by | Rotowire.com
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One month to go. You can almost taste the end of the NHL regular season. Well, that along with whatever you didn't digest for dinner. But enough about what you shouldn't have eaten last night.

Your league is either winding down the schedule or has started its playoff format. So what can you do to hold on to a lead or pull back into contention? If your postseason has begun and you're not one of the select few who advanced, then you need not worry. And whether you're gunning for the next level or fighting off the pack, there are a few tips that can help achieve either goal.

Team improvement becomes the obvious task, but fulfilling this proves to be more difficult with fewer resources. We're going to assume all leagues' trade deadlines have come and gone, so that avenue is closed. The free-agent market has been mentioned numerous times in this column as a great way to boost your squad, so we'll leave that aside. Let's turn our attention to roster maintenance.

Several factors go into whom you should start on a weekly basis. And while an increased number of games may tilt the favor for one player over another, this basic formula does not always work. Favorable matchups, better skills, and improved health also come into play. Maybe insert the guy who happens to go up against three soft defensive lineups and has been riding a five-game point streak over the slightly-injured fading star that may or may not be ready for any or all of the four contests.

(I should've taken the latter piece of advice last week, as Kris Versteeg stuck me with nothing while Patric Hornqvist excelled on my bench. Fortunately, that didn't cost me a playoff berth. Stubbornly, I retained Versteeg in the starting lineup for this period's wild-card battle while Hornqvist continues to laugh at me from the scoresheet. Let's see how hard this will hurt me come Sunday night.)

And now that we've displayed the silverware, we can now direct you to our select choice of items. Please choose carefully. And don't forget to tip your server:

If you would've announced in early November that St. Louis (then sitting at six wins and seven losses) would be leading the Western Conference by the beginning of March, then many would have gladly turned you in at the nearest government-approved relaxation facility. Andy McDonald missed so much time (four months, to be exact), but is clearly making up for it (seven points in six games, including five goals). Jason Arnott (three power-play points in five) is taking advantage of his elite power-play role. Baby steps for Chris Stewart (four in 14) in his quest to reclaim his role among the league's top power forwards. As Alex Pietrangelo (six in five, including a whopping five power-play assists) emerges back into prominence, Carlo Colaiacovo (two in 10, minus-2) gets shoved out of the picture.

Maybe Montreal's woes on the ice have made locals forget about that whole head coach-isn't-a-francophone deal. No, wait, maybe that was the problem all along. Suuuuuure. Or can we blame the skaters? Let's face it: Erik Cole (three in nine) isn't the same as he used to be. Rene Bourque (six in 23 since arriving from Calgary) wasn't the player the Habs thought he was. And Lars Eller (three in 11) is not the four-goal scorer he revealed himself one night in January. Life isn't all tough in La Belle Province, since P.K. Subban (seven in 12, with five PPPs) has briefly awoken from a two-month nap. And Tomas Kaberle (six in nine, including four PPAs) is not too bad either. Although Yannick Weber (two in 10, minus-8) has slowed down considerably after a few spurts of promise.

Philadelphia has managed to hang on, even when their skaters are dropping like flies at both ends. Don't expect James van Riemsdyk (broken foot) to be available before the playoffs. After getting decked Tuesday, Jakub Voracek (probably concussion) may be slow to recover. Father Time has done laps around Jaromir Jagr (groin problems, now it's his hip), but don't tell that to his hands (44 in 56 is very impressive for someone who belongs in a retirement home). Wayne Simmonds (13 in 16, plenty of special-team minutes) remains far from being a secret. Neither is rookie Matt Read (six in 10), who is playing well above his experience. While still without Andrej Meszaros (dreaded lower-body malady) and now missing Pavel Kubina (sporting an upper-body wound), Matt Carle (four in 14) once again gets the hesitant fantasy thumbs-up due to seniority.

As is often the case with non-contenders late in the season, Columbus has upped their game after their fan base essentially lost interest. Derick Brassard (nine in nine, cemented role centering Rick Nash) has been scorching the ice of late. Veterans Vinny Prospal (seven in seven) and R.J. Umberger (five in eight) are playing as if they were much younger. Due to the multiple defections up front, Mark Letestu (only three points since February 1st) has been given the key to the second line but hasn't yet taken advantage. Jack Johnson (three in two after scoreless in the first three) fits in very well with his new surroundings, while second-year surprise Nikita Nikitin (four in seven) should receive a boost with Fedor Tyutin (crushed hand) presumably done for the season.

Colorado has fought so hard possessing so little, but in the end all their effort may go for nothing. The latest blow has fallen upon Matt Duchene (twisted ankle), who only recently returned from a different (knee) injury. That should open the door for San Jose transfer Jamie McGinn (five in five with nine PIM) to grab some better looks. While not the most consistent, David Jones (seven in eight) has a knack for potting some points. Peter Mueller (three in six) hasn't quite found his pre-concussion form (that 20 in 15 to end 2009-10). And Milan Hejduk (one in nine) isn't approaching anywhere near his usual numbers. For someone as talented as Erik Johnson, he sure isn't using his skills to his benefit (nothing in six). NOTE: The Stefan Elliott experiment (two in 11) may be close to shutting down for the year.

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Player News
Patrick Maroon
Ducks' Maroon Opens Scoring In Boston
Patrick Maroon, LW, ANA
12:26 PM
News: Patrick Maroon scored his ninth of the season Thursday night against the Bruins.
Analysis: A nifty little move allowed Patrick Maroon to get open and fire a shot past Bruins' goalie Tuukka Rask. He's only managed 33 points on the season, but he remains part of a whole host of Ducks who are hanging around the outer region of fantasy relevance.

Corey Perry
Ducks' Perry Scores Late Equalizer
Corey Perry, RW, ANA
12:12 PM
News: Corey Perry scored in the last minute of the third to send Thursday's game against the Bruins to overtime.
Analysis: He struggled throughout the early part of March with just four points in the first nine games, but has bounced back nicely with four goals and an assist in his last five. Corey Perry is heating up at just the right time for the Ducks.

Andrei Markov
Habs' Markov Lights It
Andrei Markov, D, MON
1:47 AM
News: Andrei Markov scored a goal in Thursday night's 5-2 loss to Winnipeg.
Analysis: Coming off a 12-point February, Andrei Markov has slowed to a crawl in March with just one goal and three assists in 13 games. The 36-year-old defenseman logs heavy minutes, nearly 25 per game, so a drop off is understandable. With the Habs cruising, having already clinched a playoff berth, they might want to consider easing off on Markov as they enter April.

Brendan Gallagher
Habs' Gallagher Stays Hot
Brendan Gallagher, RW, MON
1:41 AM
News: Brendan Gallagher scored a goal and had five shots on net in Thursday night's 5-2 loss to the Jets. The goal was Gallagher's fourth in as many games.
Analysis: The effort's there every night from Brendan Gallagher, who scored unassisted in the loss. He has 23 goals this season, second on the team behind Max Pacioretty. Have him ready for Saturday night when the Habs host the Panthers.

Ryan Miller
Canucks' Miller Faces Shots Thursday
Ryan Miller, G, VAN
12:53 AM
News: Ryan Miller (knee) faced shots at Thursday's optional practice, Irfaan Gaffar of Sportsnet reports.
Analysis: It's a positive sign for the goalie, but there still appears to be significant doubt that he'll be back before the regular season draws to a close. For the moment, the Canucks seem to be eyeing a postseason return for Ryan Miller, but given that he hasn't played since Feb. 22, it may be difficult for him to immediately win back the No. 1 goalie role.

Brad Richardson
Canucks' Richardson Remains Questionable
Brad Richardson, C, VAN
12:48 AM
News: Brad Richardson (ankle) participated in Thursday's morning skate, but remains questionable to play later in the evening against the Avalanche.
Analysis: Brad Richardson was able to practice with the team Wednesday as well, but with the center suggesting he'd likely be day-to-day for the remainder of the season, his availability may remain in question for any given night. That sort of unreliability makes it tough to justify rostering him, even in deeper formats.

Zach Bogosian
Sabres' Bogosian Set To Return
Zach Bogosian, D, BUF
12:44 AM
News: Zach Bogosian (lower body) is slated to play Thursday against the Coyotes.
Analysis: Zach Bogosian, who has missed the last six games with a lower-body injury, checks back into the Sabres' lineup with four helpers and 30 PIM in 12 games since joining the team in a trade with the Jets.

Pekka Rinne
Preds' Rinne Confirmed To Start Thursday
Pekka Rinne, G, NSH
12:43 AM
News: Pekka Rinne will be in the net Thursday against the Lightning, Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times reports.
Analysis: He'll square off against the Bolts' Ben Bishop, whose 36 wins on the season trail only Pekka Rinne (39) and the Habs' Carey Price (40). Rinne will have his work cut out for him in slowing the Bolts' powerful attack, but the goalie's impressive ratios this season (2.08 GAA, .927 save percentage) and over his last several outings probably makes him a safe activation Thursday, though a less attractive play in daily formats.

Eddie Lack
Canucks To Start Lack On Thursday
Eddie Lack, G, VAN
12:38 AM
News: Eddie Lack is slated to start Thursday's game against the Avs.
Analysis: Eddie Lack, who has won four of his last five starts, will look Thursday to help the Canucks earn four straight wins for the first time since they last accomplished the feat, between Oct. 26 and Nov. 1.

Ryan Murray
Blue Jackets' Murray Remains Out
Ryan Murray, D, CLB
12:27 AM
News: Ryan Murray (lower body) will not join the Blue Jackets' on their two-game road trip over the weekend, Shawn Mitchell of the Columbus Dispatch reports.
Analysis: Ryan Murray won't return to the Columbus lineup any sooner than next Tuesday against the Devils, but since he has yet to resume skating since suffering the injury, fantasy owners shouldn't count on him being available by then. The blueliner has been limited to just 10 games this season.

 
 
 
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