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Down the stretch: 11 players to keep an eye on

by Dave Lozo
Sure, hockey is a team sport. But let's be realistic -- some individuals have more of the spotlight on them than others.

Over the final quarter of the season, there's reason to watch some players more closely than others. Here's a list of players who are worth monitoring over the final 20 or so games of the season that's been turned up to 11.

1. Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey Devils -- He turned down more than $100 million from the Atlanta Thrashers and subsequently was dealt to the Devils, who are counting on him help lift an offensively mediocre team not just into the playoffs, but to a Stanley Cup. On top of all that, he's never been on a team that's won a playoff game, so in essence, he's being counted on to help the Devils get somewhere he's never been. Billy Joel might want to re-write the lyrics to "Pressure" just so he can work Kovalchuk's situation into the song. Every two- or three-game goal-less streak will be magnified. It will be interesting to see how he handles it.

2. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings -- As brilliant as the 25-year-old has been during his first season as a starting NHL goalie, it hasn't been enough to place the Red Wings in playoff position. There always are expectations in "Hockeytown," even if 2009-10 is being considered a "transition" season. Now that the Wings are healthy for the final chunk of the season, Howard will be expected to maintain his high level of play and boost the Wings into the playoffs. If he's not up to it, Chris Osgood, who showed last season he can turn his game on when it matters most, is lurking in the background.

3. Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning -- Being in the spotlight at this time of year is nothing new for Lecavalier, who has been the consistent focus of trade rumors for the last couple seasons. But coming out of the break, the Lightning are on the edge of the postseason despite a somewhat down season for the 29-year-old. He's on pace for his lowest goal total since the 2001-02 season, but if he finds his scoring touch during the final 20 games of the season, the Lightning can crack the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07. And on a team that struggles defensively like Tampa Bay, his offense sorely is needed.

4. Marc Savard, Boston Bruins -- No team has scored fewer goals in the League than the Bruins, and much of it can be attributed to Savard missing a slew of time due to knee and foot injuries. He is known more for setting up goals, but only 1 goal in his past 23 games is unacceptable. Savard also is on pace to average less than a point per game during a season for the first time since 2003-04. A lot has been made of the sub-par season of goaltender Tim Thomas, but Tuukka Rask has been splendid in his place and the Bruins are third in the League in goals allowed. Whether Savard finds his scoring touch after a much-needed two-week Olympic break could be the difference between a playoff berth and an early start to the offseason for the Bruins.

5. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers -- The eyes of New York will be trained on Lundqvist right away, and it will be for two reasons. One, he has been playing most of the season without a real backup. Rangers coach John Tortorella demoted backup Stephen Valiquette early in the season and has been rotating Chad Johnson and Matt Zaba up and down from the minors while only getting them a smattering of action. If the Rangers want to avoid missing the postseason, they'll have to lean on Lundqvist and hope he doesn't get worn down. And that brings us to the second reason why Lundqvist will be the center of attention -- after coming back from the 2006 Olympics, Lundqvist hit a wall and faded down the stretch. This season, the Rangers don't have the cushion they did four years ago, so a repeat post-Olympic showing from Lundqvist surely will sink the team.

6. Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames -- To some, the departures of defenseman Dion Phaneuf and center Olli Jokinen from Calgary signaled the end of the Flames' postseason hopes. But can a team that comes out of the break in eighth place in the Western Conference really be dismissed? Not as long as Iginla is there. Despite his 27 goals and 30 assists, there's room for improvement in the game of the Flames captain. And with much of his support dealt away, it will be on his shoulders to carry Calgary into the postseason. There's this good sign for the Flames -- he went into the break with 3 goals in two games, then delivered a hat trick for Canada in his first Olympic game of 2010. Besides, when is the spotlight not on Iginla?

7. Michael Leighton, Philadelphia Flyers -- Entering the season, the Flyers knew they'd have their biggest question mark between the pipes. The only thing they didn't count on was it being Leighton and not Ray Emery, who could be lost for the season with a hip injury. That would leave Leighton, who was claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 11, as the man charged with backstopping the Flyers down the stretch. But really, what reason is there to doubt him at this point? Since arriving in Philadelphia, all he's done is post a 12-3-1 record, a 2.19 goals-against average, and a .925 save percentage. What everyone will watch is how he handles the workload and pressure of a playoff run, or even a playoff round. If Leighton plays just half of the Flyers' remaining games, he'll have played in more NHL games this season than he did in the previous three combined.

8. Ray Whitney, Carolina Hurricanes -- Ilya Kovalchuk he's not, but Whitney could be the difference between a Stanley Cup and an early exit for whatever team acquires him before the deadline. There have been reports that Whitney is destined for the Los Angeles Kings if the two sides can hammer out a contract extension. He's third on the Hurricanes with 19 goals and 48 points in 59 games. No matter where he lands (assuming of course, he does land somewhere else), he will be considered the "missing piece," placing him directly under the microscope.

9. Scott Niedermayer, Anaheim Ducks -- It's possible this could be the 36-year-old's final season, and the last thing he wants to do is go out after missing the playoffs. His numbers are down, and the Ducks are two points out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference. He's minus-17 this season, by far the worst plus/minus rating he's ever had in his 18-season career. But he went into the break hot, with a goal and 5 assists in four games. Will the Ducks trade the four-time Stanley Cup winner? If you believe GM Bob Murray, the answer is an emphatic no. Whether he's dealt to a Cup contender or sticks in Anaheim for the final 20 games of this season, this could be the end for the Norris Trophy winner. It will be fun to see if he can help push the Ducks into the postseason if he's not traded.

10. John Tavares, New York Islanders -- Remember Steven Stamkos? Canadian kid, plays for the Lightning? First pick of the 2008 Entry Draft? Well, Stamkos, who is seventh in the NHL scoring with 70 points, had just 46 points in 79 games during his rookie season. But he closed strong, posting 11 goals and 8 assists in the Lightning's final 20 games of 2008-09. Can Tavares do the same? The No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft has 17 goals and 17 assists in 62 games this season for the Islanders, putting him on a similar pace to what Stamkos had during his rookie campaign. And Tavares has the added benefit of a two-week rest after he clearly hit the rookie wall this season. Will history repeat itself? The 19-year-old is set up nicely to close strong and maybe even help the Isles contend for a playoff berth in the East.

11. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings -- In just his second NHL season, Quick has become a workhorse for the Kings. The 24-year-old has played in 55 of 61 games, and while he didn't see any game action during the Olympics, he didn't get a true two-week rest while in Vancouver. The most games he's ever played in one season was 60 in 2007-08, when he split time between the Kings, the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL and the Reading Royals of the ECHL. Will he hit a wall? Will Erik Ersberg pick up some of the workload? The Kings look like a lock for the playoffs, sitting fifth in the Western Conference with 78 points, but how Quick performs over the final month could be an indicator of how he will perform when the postseason gets under way.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter at: @DLozoNHL.

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