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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
Nikolay Kulemin
Isles' Kulemin Gets First Postseason Point
Nikolay Kulemin, LW, NYI
12:50 AM
News: Nikolay Kulemin contributed an assist and five hits in Sunday's Game 3 win over the Capitals.
Analysis: Nikolay Kulemin was credited with the primary assist on John Tavares' game-winning goal, as his redirected shot bounced off goalie Braden Holtby's pad into the waiting stick of the Isles' captain. Though he saw 17:16 of action while skating on the Isles' top line, Kulemin won't make for a strong selection in daily lineups during the postseason. The 28-year-old supplied just 15 goals and 31 points over 82 games during the regular season.

Nick Leddy
Isles' Leddy Sets Up Goal In Game 3
Nick Leddy, D, NYI
12:44 AM
News: Nick Leddy set up John Tavares' game-winning overtime goal in Sunday's Game 3 against the Capitals.
Analysis: It's Nick Leddy's first point of the postseason, but he's been riding high since the tail end of the regular season, tallying eight assists in his final six contests. He'll make for a good lineup selection in daily formats any night the Islanders play.

Josh Bailey
Isles' Bailey Chips In Assist In Win
Josh Bailey, LW, NYI
12:41 AM
News: Josh Bailey supplied an assist in Sunday's 2-1 overtime win over the Capitals.
Analysis: Josh Bailey has only put eight shots on goal over his last six games, but has still been able to come away with a point in each of those contests. He's tallied a goal and five assists during that span, with the helper in Sunday's game coming on a second-period score by linemate Kyle Okposo.

Matt Cooke
Wild's Cooke To Sit
Matt Cooke, LW, MIN
12:29 AM
News: Matt Cooke is slated to be among the Wild's lineup scratches Monday against Blues, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports.
Analysis: Along with Matt Cooke, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder and Ryan Carter are slated to be scratched Monday, while Sean Bergenheim and Justin Fontaine are in line to join the team's Game 3 lineup. Cooke saw 10:27 worth of ice time in Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Blues.

Henrik Lundqvist
Rangers Stick With Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist, G, NYR
12:21 AM
News: Henrik Lundqvist is in line to start Monday's game against the Penguins, Andrew Gross of The Record reports.
Analysis: Though blueliner Keith Yandle is feeling under the weather, he will play Monday, as the Rangers are slated to stick with the same lineup (including Henrik Lundqvist) that they rolled with in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Penguins.

Ondrej Pavelec
Jets Stick With Pavelec On Monday
Ondrej Pavelec, G, WPG
12:09 AM
News: Ondrej Pavelec is slated to start Monday's game against the Ducks.
Analysis: Down 2-0 in the series, Ondrej Pavelec and the Jets will look to turn things around at home on Monday, after having been outscored by a combined tally of 6-3 over the first two games of the matchup, which were held in Anaheim.

Jason Pominville
Wild's Pominville Records Two Points In Win
Jason Pominville, RW, MIN
4/20/2015
News: Jason Pominville tallied a goal, an assist, and a plus-3 rating in Monday's Game 3 win over the Blues.
Analysis: It's now the second multi-point night for Jason Pominville in the playoffs, and this time he wasn't aided by an empty net on either of them. The winger had just two goals over the course of the final 15 regular season games but has now potted a pair this series as he figures to be one of the top offensive options for the Wild the rest of the way.

Carl Hagelin
Hagelin Finds Net In Rangers' Game 3 Win
Carl Hagelin, LW, NYR
4/20/2015
News: Carl Hagelin opened the scoring in Monday's 2-1 victory over the host Penguins.
Analysis: Carl Hagelin puts the kibosh on his four game point-less drought and nets his 11th career playoff goal. We're sure head coach Alain Vigneault will take it, considering the Swede winger has just seven points in 19 career games versus Pittsburgh.

Zach Parise
Parise Helps Power Wild To Win
Zach Parise, LW, MIN
4/20/2015
News: Zach Parise notched his first goal of the playoffs and added an assist in Monday's Game 3 win over the Blues.
Analysis: It's been a highly productive three games for Zach Parise as he's racked up four points in the series thus far. He dealt with what was being described as a "nagging" injury toward the end of the season, but he appears to be past that as he's returned to his place as one of the top goal-scorers around.

Mikael Granlund
Wild's Granlund Contributes In Win
Mikael Granlund, C, MIN
4/20/2015
News: Mikael Granlund tallied a pair of assists and a plus-3 rating in Monday's Game 3 victory over the Blues.
Analysis: Mikael Granlund finished the regular season strong with a point in five of his final six contests and his playoff campaign has picked up where he left off as he's totaled three points through the three games thus far. The 23-year-old's scoring wasn't consistent enough over the course of the season to earn much consideration outside of deeper leagues, but he finished the year with a plus-17 rating and is now up to plus-4 in the playoffs, giving him some value in that department.

 
 
 
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