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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
Wayne Simmonds
Flyers' Simmonds Notches Goal In Preseason Win
Wayne Simmonds, RW, PHI
5:00 AM
News: Wayne Simmonds scored a goal in Tuesday's 4-2 win over the Rangers.
Analysis: Wayne Simmonds has found himself with two new linemates this season, and this preseason chemistry, albeit against the Rangers' B team, is encouraging. Simmonds' 60 points last season should place in the early rounds of most drafts.

Sean Couturier
Flyers' Couturier Flashes Offense In Preseason Win
Sean Couturier, C, PHI
4:57 AM
News: Sean Couturier scored a goal in Tuesday's 4-2 win over the Rangers.
Analysis: The Flyers are looking for Sean Couturier to expand his offensive game this season. In fact, they've been looking for that for the last few seasons, and it hasn't happened. Last year, the defensively-minded center collected just 39 points. He'll add good depth to most fantasy lineups, but since past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, be careful not to overvalue him.

Travis Moen
Canadiens' Moen Could Be Odd Man Out
Travis Moen, LW, MON
4:46 AM
News: Travis Moen is in danger of losing his spot on the roster, the Montreal Gazette reports.
Analysis: Travis Moen skated on the fifth line during practice Tuesday, so it's looking like he's headed for a reserve forward role if he makes the team. And the Habs may decide to go with a cheaper option, like Michael Bournival, for a guy that might be a healthy scratch most nights.

Dustin Tokarski
Canadiens' Tokarski Still In Running
Dustin Tokarski, G, MON
4:39 AM
News: Dustin Tokarski is still in the mix to become the backup goalie to Carey Price, the Montreal Gazette reports. He and Peter Budaj are battling for the backup job.
Analysis: Head coach Michel Therrien said the team is still evaluating the two goaltenders heading into the final weekend of the preseason and that "there are a lot of things that come into consideration" when it comes to making a decision like this. One thing to consider is that Dustin Tokarski will have to be exposed to waivers before the Canadiens can assign him to Hamilton of the American Hockey League. A guy like Tokarski, a young goalie with playoff experience and a minimum salary, might be attractive to other teams.

Ryan Miller
Canucks' Miller Makes 31 Saves In Preseason Loss
Ryan Miller, G, VAN
12:59 AM
News: Ryan Miller gave up four goals on 35 shots in Monday's preseason loss to the Coyotes.
Analysis: It was a strong outing for Ryan Miller, who saw his team get largely outplayed for the majority of the game. Miller is now 1-1-0 in the preseason and enters this season as the Canucks' clear-cut starting goaltender.

Al Montoya
Panthers' Montoya Claims Backup Gig
Al Montoya, G, FLA
12:55 AM
News: After Dan Ellis was waived Sunday by the Panthers, Al Montoya appears to have claimed the No. 2 goalie job behind Roberto Luongo, Harvey Fialkov of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.
Analysis: Al Montoya had the inside edge for the gig by virtue of his contract being larger than Ellis', but his play in the preseason justified his emergence as the victor in the job battle. The 29-year-old proved highly capable as a backup for the Jets last season, posting a 13-8-3 record, 2.30 GAA and .920 save percentage. However, Luongo is a far better talent in goal than Montoya's chief competition in Winnipeg (Ondrej Pavelec), so the backup might actually notice a decrease in usage in his first season in South Florida.

Roberto Luongo
Panthers' Luongo Sharp In Preseason Debut
Roberto Luongo, G, FLA
12:50 AM
News: Roberto Luongo allowed one goal on 18 shots while working two periods in Saturday's exhibition loss to the Predators.
Analysis: The lone goal Roberto Luongo allowed was somewhat fluky, as the goalie's skate got caught on his uniform to prevent him from blocking the shot with his foot. All in all, Luongo was sharp in his first preseason tune-up. He'll be locked in for a large workload as the Panthers' No. 1 netminder this season.

Greg Zanon
Panthers Waive Zanon
Greg Zanon, D, FLA
12:45 AM
News: Greg Zanon was waived by the Panthers on Sunday, Harvey Fialkov of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.
Analysis: The 34-year-old blueliner never had much of a chance at cracking the Panthers' Opening Night roster. Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak and MacKenzie Weegar remain in a battle for the team's seventh defenseman job.

Bobby Butler
Panthers' Butler Waived
Bobby Butler, RW, FLA
12:43 AM
News: Bobby Butler was waived by the Panthers on Sunday, Harvey Fialkov of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.
Analysis: With Bobby Butler losing out on winning a spot on the Panthers' fourth-line, he'll likely clear waivers and report to AHL San Antonio. He compiled 22 goals and 25 assists in 69 AHL games last season.

Joey Crabb
Panthers Waive Crabb
Joey Crabb, RW, FLA
12:41 AM
News: Joey Crabb was waived by the Panthers on Sunday, Harvey Fialkov of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.
Analysis: Joey Crabb is expected to clear waivers and report to AHL San Antonio, where he totaled 15 goals and 14 assists over 62 games. He appeared in nine games with the Panthers last season and could be up again at some point in 2014-15 if the team is need of depth on the fourth line.

 
 
 
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