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Heading into final quarter, plenty of faces to watch

Monday, 04.08.2013 / 10:30 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

Twenty days remain in the 2012-13 NHL season and so much is still up in the air.

The final quarter of the season is here, which means the sprint to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is on. The field is full; only a handful of teams can say they don't have a chance.

But how will it end? Which teams will cross the finish line knowing there are more games to play in May? Who will we be talking about once it's all said and done?

Here are 14 people who will shape the final weeks of the regular season:

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Ovechkin has been at his absolute best over the past three weeks and he'll have to stay that way if the Capitals are going to win the Southeast Division, which seemed impossible when the calendar turned from February to March.

Capitals general manager George McPhee was crystal clear in his belief in his team at the NHL Trade Deadline because he added forward Martin Erat in exchange for top prospect Filip Forsberg and kept Mike Ribeiro despite the center's expiring contract.

McPhee believes in the Capitals' chances of getting into the playoffs and doing some damage. Ovechkin has to stay in charge if it's going to happen.

2. James Reimer, Toronto Maple Leafs

Reimer should now know the Toronto Maple Leafs' management team both believes in him and has him on a short leash. They basically said as much by dancing with the Vancouver Canucks (Roberto Luongo) and Calgary Flames (Miikka Kiprusoff) on deadline day only to hold on to Reimer and backup Ben Scrivens.

The Maple Leafs are in a good position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but it'll be on Reimer's shoulders to make sure they get there then perhaps make some noise.

Reimer has been solid for the most part, but he's had some inconsistent nights. All eyes in Toronto are always on him, but now we'll see how he does when the pressure of big games comes into play.

3. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings

If the Red Wings are going to make the playoffs for a record 22nd straight season, it's on Babcock to find the right combinations down the stretch to get the most out of his aging and battered team.

Babcock recently reunited forwards Pavel Datsyuk with Henrik Zetterberg, a move that has seemed to energize both while giving added responsibility to Johan Franzen, who moved to center the second line.

Babcock has to figure out how much faith to put in rookie defenseman Danny Dekeyser, who has impressed in two games since signing a two-year contract late last month. If Dekeyser can help the blue line, Babcock has to let him mature in a playoff race, never an easy thing to do for a coach.

4. Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks

It's Schneider's time in Vancouver. The 27-year-old goalie has been waiting for this chance, and now he'll get an opportunity to show what he can do with it.

Roberto Luongo looms in the shadows, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for the Canucks, but it's clear now coach Alain Vigneault has identified Schneider as his No. 1 goalie. Schneider has started 11 straight games and finished 10 of them.

Schneider has put in his time as Luongo's apprentice, and he's earned his chance to lead the Canucks to another Northwest Division title and top-three seed in the Western Conference.

5. Marian Gaborik, Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen made the big splash on deadline day by acquiring Gaborik because the Blue Jackets needed a jolt of offense in the top six to potentially get them over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and the second time in franchise history.

Gaborik has been good for the Blue Jackets so far after having a rough season for the first 35 games with the New York Rangers. That's good news because he can't waste time getting comfortable in Columbus or reacclimating himself with the Western Conference.

He has the ability to score in bunches, which is exactly what the Blue Jackets need. They're on the outside of the top eight and have three home games remaining.

6. John Tortorella, New York Rangers

The Rangers have underachieved this season based on expectations, but Tortorella received reinforcements before the deadline he can put to good use. The Rangers also got rid of Gaborik, with whom Tortorella never quite saw eye-to-eye.

Forward Ryane Clowe is a Tortorella-type player the Rangers have been missing this season. He makes the coach use adjectives like jam, grind and bang.

Derick Brassard and John Moore give the Rangers upgrades at center and on defense. The team is more creative because of Brassard's passing and faster because of Moore's skating.

The Rangers are far from perfect, but Tortorella has a roster he should like because of trades he helped facilitate, so it's on him to get the Rangers into the postseason playing the best hockey of their season.

7. John Tavares, New York Islanders

Islanders general manager Garth Snow stood pat on deadline day, which means he didn't do anything to improve his team's chances of getting into the playoffs for the first time since 2007 but he also didn't subtract anything from the roster that has been good enough to stay in the race.

All that means is the Islanders still have a chance, and it's time for Tavares to step up and for the first time in his NHL career put the team on his back to get them into the postseason.

Tavares is already a star in the League without ever having reached the playoffs, but his play this month will go a long way to defining the type of player he is right now. Is Tavares someone who produces when the pressure is off, or someone who comes through when the heat is on and the stakes are high?

8. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators

Anderson sat out five-plus weeks with an ankle injury, but Ottawa's No. 1 goalie returned Sunday and will be in charge of leading the surprising Senators into the playoffs. He is healthy and fresh, two vitally important traits to have in April.

Anderson was putting up Vezina Trophy-worthy numbers -- 8-4-2 with a 1.49 goals-against average and .952 save percentage -- before he went down with his injury on Feb. 21. It'll be interesting to see if he can rediscover that form on a consistent basis.

Robin Lehner is the goalie of the future in Ottawa, but if all goes to plan, he'll be Anderson's backup for the rest of the season.

9. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

It's unfair to say the Bruins go as Bergeron goes because they're still a darn good team. But he is a lightning rod and arguably their best all-round player, so it's a problem that he's out indefinitely after suffering the fourth concussion of his career last week.

The Bruins figure to be extremely cautious with Bergeron because of his medical history.

So Bergeron becomes a face to watch down the stretch because the Bruins are likely going to have to play without him for a while, and it won't be easy. They're already struggling to score (1-0 win against the New Jersey Devils; 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens).

Bergeron and the Bruins will likely target a return around the start of the playoffs, but there's no certainty of that.

10. Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues

With goalie Jaroslav Halak injured, Elliott and Jake Allen are going to have to be the backbone for the Blues down the stretch. Elliott is the one coach Ken Hitchcock wants to lean on because of his experience, and so far he's answering the bell.

Elliott is 3-0 with four goals allowed in three appearances since Halak went down with his groin injury. Elliott made 28 saves in a 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, St. Louis' fourth straight victory.

If Elliott continues to recapture the magic he had last season, and his teammates continue to play poised and relatively mistake-free hockey in front of him, the Blues should be able to roll into the playoffs and figure to be a dangerous team once they get there.

11. Corey Crawford/Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks

OK, so maybe the Blackhawks aren't under as much pressure as so many other teams because their position for the Stanley Cup Playoffs is secure, but they'll be playing teams fighting for their playoff lives, so they'll have to be at their best if they want to go into the tournament on a roll.

Odds are coach Joel Quenneville is waiting to start a close evaluation of both goalies to determine who will start the playoffs as the Blackhawks' No. 1. Neither has emerged yet, but that's what makes this storyline an interesting one to watch.

Crawford figures to have the advantage because he's been the No. 1 goalie in each of the past two postseasons, but Quenneville has shown no hesitation going to Emery, who on Saturday posted a 20-save shutout of the Nashville Predators in his first start since giving up two goals to the Anaheim Ducks in his only loss of the season.

12. Viktor Fasth/Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks

It's the same story in Anaheim as it is in Chicago.

Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said he will identify a No. 1 goalie before the playoffs begin. Ideally he'd like to do it with about six or seven games left in the regular season, meaning he's got about a week or so to decide.

Neither Hiller nor Fasth has been good enough to emerge at No. 1, or bad enough to fall to No. 2.

Boudreau's decision will be one to watch in the Western Conference.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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