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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
Kari Lehtonen
Stars' Lehtonen Stops 35 To Beat Oilers
Kari Lehtonen, G, DAL
12:34 PM
News: Kari Lehtonen made 35 saves on 37 shots in Tuesday's victory over Edmonton.
Analysis: That's three straight wins for Kari Lehtonen now, and if he gave up four goals in one of them, well, at least he faced 41 shots in that game. All in all, he's showing good signs of getting his game on track after a disappointing start to the season.

Viktor Fasth
Oilers Fall Despite Fasth's 31 Stops
Viktor Fasth, G, EDM
12:27 PM
News: Viktor Fasth allowed three goals on 34 shots in Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Dallas.
Analysis: A pair of Tyler Seguin goals in the second period ended up giving the Stars enough cushion to beat Edmonton, and Viktor Fasth can hardly be faulted for being Seguin's latest victim. Nonetheless, he's now taken losses in three straight starts and six out of eight on the season.

John Klingberg
Stars' Klingberg Starring
John Klingberg, D, DAL
12:22 PM
News: John Klingberg extended his goal streak to three games and his point streak to five in Tuesday's win over Edmonton, going plus-3 with his third marker of the year and an assist.
Analysis: John Klingberg's achieved near-instant stardom in his first taste of the NHL, having started with three scoreless contests before exploding for eight points over the last five games.

Tyler Seguin
Stars' Seguin Heating Up Again
Tyler Seguin, C, DAL
12:12 PM
News: Tyler Seguin scored a pair of goals on five shots and went plus-2 in Tuesday's win over Edmonton.
Analysis: Uh oh, he's starting another one of those super-hot streaks now. That's five goals, an assist and a plus-7 rating for Tyler Seguin over the last four games.

Jacob Trouba
Jets' Trouba Notches Two Helpers
Jacob Trouba, D, WPG
12:01 PM
News: Jacob Trouba picked up a pair of assists on Evander Kane power-play goals -- the second an empty-netter -- in Tuesday's win over Columbus.
Analysis: It's not exactly front-page news, but Jacob Trouba does have three points over the last three games after totaling just three over his first 20 contests of the year. He's had a little bit of bad puck luck, but remains superbly talented and is skating major minutes -- 24:11 on Tuesday -- for the Jets.

Michael Raffl
Flyers' Raffl Likely To Return Wednesday
Michael Raffl, LW, PHI
9:36 AM
News: Michael Raffl (ankle) was a full participant at the Flyers' morning skate and looks on tap to play Wednesday against the Red Wings, Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Analysis: Michael Raffl hadn't been expected to return to action until the weekend, but the Flyers evidently upgraded his status after he was able to practice Tuesday without any apparent issues. He hasn't been activated from IR yet and will officially enter Wednesday's contest as a game-time decision, but coach Craig Berube said that Raffl will play on a line with Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds barring a setback during pregame warmups. Raffl who has six goals in 12 games, has missed the Flyers' previous eight games with the ankle issue.

Jordan Binnington
Blues' Recall Binnington In Emergency
Jordan Binnington, G, STL
9:36 AM
News: Jordan Binnington has been recalled from AHL Chicago under emergency conditions, reports Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Analysis: With Brian Elliott suffering a lower body injury Tuesday, Jordan Binnington will serve as the back up to Jake Allen. He has a 1.89 goals against and a 92.5% save percentage in nine games for AHL Chicago.

Kevin Shattenkirk
Blues' Shattenkirk Picks Up Assist Tuesday
Kevin Shattenkirk, D, STL
9:32 AM
News: Kevin Shattenkirk picked up an assist on the power play Tuesday in a loss to Ottawa. He added two shots, a blocked shot, and two hits in the contest.
Analysis: Kevin Shattenkirk is fifth in scoring among defensemen despite having only one goal. This was his first point in four games after getting off to a scorching start.

Steve Mason
Flyers' Mason Gets The Start Wednesday
Steve Mason, G, PHI
9:28 AM
News: Steve Mason will be in the crease Wednesday against the Red Wings, Dave Isaac of the South Jersey Courier-Post reports.
Analysis: Steve Mason will be coming off his best performance of the season, a 46-save shutout effort against the Islanders that cruelly resulted in a shootout loss. His improved performance over the last several weeks has allowed him to climb all the way to eighth in league in save percentage (.923) among qualifying netminders.

Ondrej Pavelec
Jets Starting Pavelec On Wednesday
Ondrej Pavelec, G, WPG
9:22 AM
News: Ondrej Pavelec will be in the net Wednesday against the Senators, Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Sun reports.
Analysis: Ondrej Pavelec has performed acceptably this season with a 7-8-2 record, 2.29 GAA and .917 save percentage over 19 outings, but the phenomenal play of late by Michael Hutchinson has begun to turn the Jets' goalie situation into a timeshare. Hutchinson turned in another gem in Tuesday's win over the Blue Jackets in stopping 32 of 34 shots, so Pavelec may need to match serve against the Sabres if he hopes to earn Friday's start against the Bruins.

 
 
 
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