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Fourteen players to watch down the stretch

by John Kreiser

With three-quarters of the 2013-14 season complete, looks at some of the biggest storylines and award contenders.

The quest for gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is over, but the race for the Stanley Cup is just starting to heat up. Less than seven weeks remain from the resumption of play to the end of the regular season, and 25 of 30 teams either hold one of the 16 Stanley Cup Playoff berths or are within four points of the top eight in their conference.

Here are 14 players (listed alphabetically) to keep an eye on during the final weeks of the regular season:

Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs: No goaltender in the League sees more rubber on a nightly basis than Bernier, who faces an average of more than 35 shots per 60 minutes. Though he plays for a team that's outshot by an average of more than eight per game, Bernier's .927 save percentage has enabled Toronto to reach the Olympic break in possession of one of the two wild-card playoff berths in the Eastern Conference and with a good chance to finish as high as second in the Atlantic Division. He has to maintain that form for the Maple Leafs to qualify for the postseason.

Sergei Bobrovsky
Goalie - CBJ
RECORD: 20-14-3
GAA: 2.52 | SVP: 0.918
Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus reached the Olympic break one point out of a playoff spot largely thanks to a 10-3-1 streak by the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner after he returned from injury. Bobrovsky allowed two non-shootout goals in three games (two starts) for Russia in Sochi. He looked like his award-winning self after returning from his injury and that's what the Blue Jackets will need for him to be down the stretch as they attempt to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils: The winningest goaltender in NHL history may be nearing the end of a legendary career. Though Devils coach Peter DeBoer hasn't officially announced that Cory Schneider is the No. 1 goaltender in New Jersey, Brodeur hasn't started a game since he was driven from the net by the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 26. Schneider's goals-against average and save percentage are better than Brodeur's; Brodeur's .899 save percentage is 45th in the League and would be a career low. At 41, Brodeur is looking at being a backup for the first time in his career; he also could request a trade or be asked to waive his no-trade clause. Either way there's no guarantee he'll be back next season.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: The NHL scoring leader didn't do much offensively in Sochi, though his goal in the second period of the gold-medal game was a backbreaker. He returns with an 11-point lead on Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks in the scoring race and he's captain of a team that has the inside track to first place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins won't be pushed in the Metropolitan Division race, but they need Crosby healthy and sharp for the postseason.

Pavel Datsyuk
Center - DET
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 33
SOG: 108 | +/-: -4
Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings: Datsyuk missed most of the last month before the Olympics with a lower-body injury, but was able to play in Sochi and arguably was Russia's best player. He comes home to a team that's scrambling to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season, and will be without captain and leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg most likely for the rest of the regular season due to surgery for a herniated disk. That puts extra pressure on Datsyuk not only to remain healthy, but to help provide some of the scoring that will be missing due to Zetterberg's absence.

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators: Karlsson has established himself as the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, and his performance in Sochi, where he tied for the tournament lead in points and was named the tournament's best defenseman by the International Ice Hockey Federation, was one of the keys to Sweden's Olympic success. His task now is to help the Senators navigate their way through a pile of playoff contenders into the top eight in the Eastern Conference. He is the player who makes the Senators' offense go and he plays a style that few other defensemen can match. If he's not at the top of his game after Sochi, the Senators aren't likely to make the postseason.

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: Lundqvist got off to a tough start this season, but any doubts about his performance are gone after the Olympics, where he sparked an underpowered Swedish team to the silver medal and was voted to the All-Tournament team by the media. The Rangers' offense is generating 2.56 goals per game, its lowest average since 2008-09; that means there's more pressure and less wiggle room for Lundqvist as the Rangers try to hang on to a playoff spot. He went into the break with five consecutive victories and 10 wins in 12 starts.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: No first-year player has scored 30 goals in a season since 2010-11, when Michael Grabner, Logan Couture and Jeff Skinner each did it. MacKinnon, the first player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft, has 22 in 58 games for Colorado, including 12 in 19 games since the start of the new year. The quality and quantity of MacKinnon's ice time continues to improve. He leads all rookies in goals and points (44), and those numbers figure to keep climbing as coach Patrick Roy's trust in him keeps growing.

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: Ovechkin scored 1:17 into Russia's first game in Sochi but didn't score again and took a lot of the heat after Russia was eliminated in the quarterfinals. Ovechkin is the NHL's runaway leader in the goal-scoring race with 40; no one else has more than 31. The Capitals begin play one point out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference and Ovechkin has accounted for nearly one-quarter of their non-shootout goals. He can't have an Olympic hangover if the Capitals are to have any chance to make the postseason.

Carey Price
Goalie - MTL
RECORD: 26-17-5
GAA: 2.33 | SVP: 0.925
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens: Price showed that Canada Olympic coach Mike Babcock made the right decision in picking him to start in goal en route to the gold medal, and Price picked up the tournament's best goaltender award along the way. Now he faces the challenge of returning home and satisfying hockey's most demanding fans while ensuring that the Canadiens make the playoffs. Price went through a two-week slump in January, but then allowed seven goals on 210 shots in his six starts before the Olympic break. On a team without a lot of firepower, Price's performance will be the determining factor in whether Montreal makes the playoffs.

Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks: Sedin missed time before the Olympics due to a rib injury and stayed home from Sochi to let the problem heal. He's been skating at practice during the past few days and hopes to be able to play when the Canucks take the ice Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues. Vancouver desperately needs Henrik and twin brother Daniel Sedin to find their form offensively; neither has scored an NHL goal in 2014, a major reason the Canucks have dropped out of the top eight in the Western Conference. A healthy Henrik Sedin is a must for Vancouver's playoff hopes.

Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Ducks: It's the last go-around for Selanne, who at 43 has said he plans to retire after the season. He came back from Sochi after winning a bronze medal with Finland and being voted tournament MVP, and he'd like nothing better than to end his career with a second Stanley Cup. The Ducks have managed Selanne's games and ice time this season in an effort to have him at his peak when the Stanley Cup Playoffs start, but he's shown only flashes (seven goals, 20 points in 47 games) of the form that has produced 682 career goals. However, his play in Sochi -- including a two-goal performance in the bronze-medal game -- showed there's still something left in the tank.

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 23
SOG: 60 | +/-: 11
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: The most recent NHL player to score 60 goals in a season hasn't played since breaking his right leg in a game against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11. The Lightning have survived his absence better than anyone could have expected; they resume play in second place in the Atlantic Division largely thanks to the heroics of goaltender Ben Bishop. But for the Lightning to hold on to a playoff berth they'll need Stamkos to return soon and show he's capable of playing at the level he was at when he was injured (14 goals, 23 points in 17 games). A healthy Stamkos should get the Lightning into the playoffs and make them a threat once they get there.

Thomas Vanek, New York Islanders: Despite a disappointing showing in Sochi as captain of Austria, Vanek remains an X factor; he's likely to be the highest-scoring forward available ahead of the March 5 NHL Trade Deadline and figures to be in high demand by teams that see him as the missing piece to playoff success. Vanek has averaged nearly a point a game (40 points, 44 games) since coming to the Islanders from the Buffalo Sabres in October, but he's set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season and has told the Islanders he won't sign before the summer. The Islanders almost certainly will trade him; the question is to which team and what kind of package they'll be able to get in return. He could be a difference-maker for a Cup hopeful.

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