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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
Steve Downie
Flyers' Downie Day-To-Day
Steve Downie, RW, PHI
12:56 AM
News: Steve Downie is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Analysis: After not taking the ice Tuesday, Steve Downie is decidedly iffy for Thursday's playoff opener against the Rangers.

Brandon Prust
Habs' Prust A Game-Time Decision For Wednesday
Brandon Prust, RW, MON
12:55 AM
News: Brandon Prust (upper body) will be a game-time decision for Game 1 of the Habs' playoff series with the Lightning beginning Wednesday, Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette reports.
Analysis: Brandon Prust was able to take part in Tuesday's practice and skated on a regular line, but it's unclear if he's fully recovered from injury quite yet after missing the final 12 games of the regular season. The team could make a decision on Prust's status for Game 1 at the conclusion of Wednesday's morning skate.

Matt Duchene
Avs' Duchene Still Sidelined
Matt Duchene, C, COL
12:51 AM
News: Matt Duchene (knee) did not skate Tuesday, the Denver Post reports.
Analysis: The report notes that Matt Duchene is not expected to play in the first two games of the Avs' upcoming series against the Wild (which opens Thursday), at a minimum.

Travis Moen
Habs' Moen Takes Part In No-Contact Practice
Travis Moen, LW, MON
12:49 AM
News: Travis Moen (concussion) joined the Canadiens for a non-contact practice Tuesday, Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette reports.
Analysis: Though Travis Moen will travel to Tampa for the team's first-round playoff series, he's seemingly unavailable for at least Game 1 after skating on the Habs' fifth line at Tuesday's session. He'll need to get some full-contact work before coach Michel Therrien considers using him in his postseason lineup.

Kris Letang
Pens' Letang On Top Power Play
Kris Letang, D, PIT
12:48 AM
News: Kris Letang practiced at the left point of Pittsburgh's top power-play unit Tuesday, the Penguins' website reports.
Analysis: Kris Letang will serve as the lone defender on the No. 1 uit, with the right point being manned by Evgeni Malkin. Paul Martin has played well on the team's top unit, so placing Letang there over Martin means the team has confidence the stroke survivor is operating at 100 percent capacity.

Tyson Strachan
Caps Reassign Strachan
Tyson Strachan, D, WAS
12:46 AM
News: Tyson Strachan was reassigned to AHL Hershey on Tuesday.
Analysis: With the Capitals' season now completed, Tyson Strachan will head back to the minors to get some action before the AHL schedule comes to a close. Strachan supplied two assists and 28 penalty minutes over his 18 games with the Capitals this season.

Matt Niskanen
Pens' Niskanen Out Of Top Four Tuesday
Matt Niskanen, D, PIT
12:41 AM
News: Matt Niskanen skated on Pittsburgh's third-group pairing with Olli Maatta on Tuesday and manned the left point of the team's second power-play unit, the Penguins' website reports.
Analysis: The return of Kris Letang and Paul Martin to the lineup don't do much to help Matt Niskanen and could, in fact, reduce his playing time and fantasy production. The right-handed shooting defender set a number of career marks in 2013-14, but he might have to wait for injuries to strike before taking a more prominent spot on the blue line.

Jan Hejda
Ducks' Hejda Day-To-Day
Jan Hejda, D, COL
12:36 AM
News: Jan Hejda (upper body) is day-to-day, Adrian Dater of the Denver Post reports.
Analysis: More on Jan Hejda's status Wednesday, but coach Patrick Roy noted Tuesday that he expects the blueliner to be ready for the team's series against the Wild, which opens on Thursday.

Jeff Zatkoff
Zatkoff Set To Serve As Pens' Postseason Backup
Jeff Zatkoff, G, PIT
12:34 AM
News: Jeff Zatkoff will serve as Pittsburgh's backup goalie in the playoffs, the Penguins' website reports.
Analysis: Pens coach Dan Bylsma said that, while Tomas Vokoun will work with the team, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff would get the bulk of practice time.

Tomas Vokoun
Bylsma Declares Jeff Zatkoff Pens' Backup Goalie
Tomas Vokoun, G, PIT
12:30 AM
News: Jeff Zatkoff is expected to serve as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup in the playoffs, according to the Penguins' website.
Analysis: Tomas Vokoun will continue to work with the team in practices and optional skates, but the bulk of practice work in the postseason will go to Fleury and Zatkoff. Of course, things have a way of playing out and it wouldn't be surprising to see Vokoun back in the mix at some point.

 
 
 
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