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Six stories to watch in season's stretch run

Wednesday, 02.29.2012 / 10:33 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Six stories to watch in season's stretch run
Will Crosby return? Who will win the West? Will playoff droughts end Florida and Toronto? Those stories and more move into focus as he hit the final stretch of the season
With the trade deadline having come and gone, it's finally time to shift gears to the playoff races and the storylines that relate to them. There is plenty there to keep everyone on edge and focused between now and April 7, when all 30 teams are in action on the final day of the regular season.

Here are six storylines that should grab the hockey world's attention over the next 5 1/2 weeks:

Sidney Crosby's status


Penguins GM Ray Shero says he likes his team, so much so that he decided not to change anything at the trade deadline. There's no question he likes his team a whole lot more when No. 87 is in the lineup.

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No one can say for certain if that's going to happen again this season, but there's some speculation in Pittsburgh that Shero's silence at the deadline suggests Crosby is close to getting back in the lineup. Crosby's level of work on the ice also should make that suggestion, as he's begun to ramp it up in recent days.

Crosby, who hasn't played since Dec. 5, says he's still experiencing concussion-like symptoms. But there's still time for him to return and get up to speed before the playoffs begin.

Now that the deadline has passed, the Crosby Watch can continue. His every move likely will be chronicled, so get ready for it again.

"I'm hopeful he'll be able to come back and play," Shero said. "There's no guarantee of that."

Race for first in the Western Conference


The New York Rangers look like they're going to be runaway winners of the Eastern Conference's regular-season crown, but the Western Conference has a much more muddled picture, at the top and the bottom of the top eight.

The top, though, is where we're going to look. Vancouver has vaulted into the No. 1 position with a great February run, but Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville all are right there with them. The Canucks and Predators made moves at the deadline that should make them better, while the Blues and Red Wings added nothing to their current rosters.

With the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race also looking like a fight to the finish, it certainly would benefit one of these teams to separate from the pack before the calendar flips to April in order to get some much-needed relaxation before the playoffs begin. There will be several teams battling tooth and nail for the final three playoff spots.

Both ends of this race will be interesting, but the teams at the top are the ones to watch because they're all Stanley Cup contenders. The top seed doesn't always guarantee playoff success, but twice in the last four seasons the Western Conference's best regular-season team has gone to the Stanley Cup Final. The Red Wings won it all in 2008.

Looking for droughts to end in Toronto and Florida

The Panthers and Maple Leafs have roughly six weeks left to do something neither has done in a long time.

It's been 12 years since Florida last made the playoffs. The Panthers have had seven coaches, seven general managers, four captains, made 15 first-round picks, and had four players inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame since they last made the playoffs in 2000 and were bounced out in the first round.

The Panthers haven't won a playoff game since 1997; they haven't won a playoff series since they went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

The Maple Leafs made the playoffs and went to the second round in 2004. They've been on the outside ever since.

Despite that drought, there has been far less turnover in Toronto since 2004. Ron Wilson is the Leafs' third coach since they last made the playoffs and Brian Burke is only their second full-time GM in that same time span, though Cliff Fletcher held the interim tag in 2008. Dion Phaneuf is only their second captain after Mats Sundin held the position for more than a decade until 2008.

Florida currently leads the Southeast Division, but Washington and Winnipeg are nipping at their heels. Toronto is in a 1-8-1 slump and has fallen into 10th place, four points out of eighth, as of Wednesday.

"In my mind, there is nothing we could have done (Monday) that would have made us better now," Burke said after staying quiet at the trade deadline. "It was all stuff that would have made us better down the road and our fans have lived through that. We have to see if this group is good enough to win and keep our assets."

Malkin, Stamkos, Giroux battling for Art Ross Trophy

Evgeni Malkin has the lead with 78 points and has been dominating consistently, especially since early December. Steven Stamkos trails Malkin by two points with 76, while Giroux is in third place with 72 points.

Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 37 | ASST: 41 | PTS: 78
SOG: 254 | +/-: 11
It's likely that one of the three will win the regular-season scoring crown, but the way Malkin is going you have to wonder if Stamkos or Giroux will be able to unseat the leading Hart Trophy candidate.

Malkin has 20 goals and 13 assists for 33 points in the last 20 games. Going back further, he has 28 goals and 26 assists for 54 points in the 34 games since Crosby left the lineup. He has three five-point games, three hat tricks, and has been held without a point only six times since Dec. 8.

Stamkos is still pumping in goals (he scored No. 44 Tuesday). With linemates Martin St. Louis and Teddy Purcell playing well, it wouldn't be crazy to see him stay hot and jump past Malkin. It will, however, take a slump from the Penguins' star center, and there's been no sign of that coming any time soon.

Giroux still is in the mix. He's been consistently good all season, so there's no reason to think he'll drop off in the final quarter of the season.

This race should be interesting to watch, but Malkin potentially could run away with it.

Leafs, Blackhawks seeking better goaltending

Neither team addressed what many fans to feel is a need in net prior to Monday's 3 p.m. ET deadline, so now it's on Corey Crawford and Ray Emery in Chicago and James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson in Toronto to slam the door over the last six weeks of the season and get their teams in the playoffs.

The hockey world will be watching, because it seems goaltending is holding both teams back from being secure in their playoff positions.

Chicago is in a better spot as the sixth seed in the Western Conference than Toronto is as the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference, but by no means are the Hawks safe, unless Crawford and/or Emery pick it up. The need for better goaltending in Chicago is even more paramount now with the absence of Jonathan Toews, who missed his fifth straight game Tuesday with an upper-body injury.

Toronto has slumped and fallen out of the top eight over its last 10 games largely because Reimer and Gustavsson have not been up to par. It got bad enough over the weekend that coach Ron Wilson publicly criticized his goaltending and said the Leafs are waiting for something bad to happen in front of the net.

"The goaltender position isn't an easy position to play in Toronto, particularly if you're struggling a little bit," Burke said. "When we signed (Gustavsson), one of the things we spent the most time on was whether or not we felt he could play in Toronto. It wasn't so much if he could be an NHL goalie, but if he could play in this market. I'm not whining, since it's what we do and where we live. But the pressure here is a millstone and not an asset."

Jets-mania reaching fevered pitch in Winnipeg

MTS Centre literally is shaking these days as the Jets are alive in the Eastern Conference's playoff mania. Winnipeg is among the trio of teams trying to win the Southeast Division title, and the fans in the city are hanging on every pass, shot and save, jumping up and down in the stands and screaming their toque-wearing heads off.

You just knew this was going to happen if the Jets were good, especially this season, the honeymoon season in Manitoba's capital city. With only eight home games left and just 17 overall, you'd expect the Jets' fans will fuel even more passion than they already have given this season.

The Thrashers got into the playoffs just once during their time in Atlanta and never won a game. The return of the Jets to Winnipeg will become a far bigger story if MTS Centre is hosting playoff hockey in April, and perhaps beyond.

"This rink every night is rocking," Jets captain Andrew Ladd told the Edmonton Sun. "It's one of the most exciting rinks to play in. It has to be one of the loudest buildings in the League."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Quote of the Day

Just the feel for the direction they were headed and what they're trying to do, it just felt that this is a really good thing for this organization. They've got the pieces. We can put something together and go on a run or two and be together for a while, and I'm really excited about that opportunity. The team we have here has an opportunity to win, and that's the most attractive thing.

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