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Halak, Saku Koivu, Rask named 'Three Stars'

by John Kreiser
If the Montreal Canadiens make the playoffs, Jaroslav Halak's performance last weekend will be a big reason why.

Halak became the first Canadiens goaltender in four years to post shutouts on back-to-back days when he blanked the Flyers 1-0 in Philadelphia Friday, then came right back with a 3-0 home victory against Buffalo the next night. The two victories put the Canadiens alone in sixth place in the East, four points clear of the ninth-place New York Rangers, with one week left in the season. The two victories also helped earn Halak First Star honors from the NHL Monday.

The back-to-back shutouts, in which he stopped all 64 shots he faced, are a continuation of his superb play since the Olympic break -- he's 9-2-1 in 12 starts, allowing just 20 goals in that span. Halak has lowered his goals-against average from 2.56 at the break to 2.31 while carrying the Canadiens within sight of clinching another playoff berth.
Second Star, Saku Koivu -- Koivu is singlehandedly keeping the Ducks' flickering playoff hopes alive. He had a goal and 3 assists in a win against eighth-place Colorado, scored a sixth-attacker goal against Vancouver that earned the Ducks a point, then got another one Saturday against Los Angeles -- and this time, he scored the deciding goal to give the Ducks a shootout win. He scored on half of his eight shots on goal last week, set up four other goals for an 8-point week, and was plus-5.

Third Star, Tuukka Rask -- If the Boston Bruins could score just a few more goals, Rask's performance in goal would have long since assured them a playoff berth. Rask allowed just two goals in three games last week, including a 1-0 overtime shutout at New Jersey in which he out-dueled Martin Brodeur.

Worth noting

Henrik Lundqvist --
Lundqvist is carrying the Rangers as they make a late push for the playoffs. He was 3-0-0 last week, all on the road, and is 5-0-1 with 10 goals allowed and a pair of shutouts in his last six games.

Pavel Datsyuk -- It’s been an up-and-down season for Detroit's star center, but he's definitely on the upswing now -- a big reason the Wings have been among the NHL's hottest teams down the stretch. Datsyuk scored 3 goals last week and added 4 assists for 7 points in four games. For the season, he's up to 27 goals and 69 points in 77 games while playing his usual superb two-way game.

Blake Comeau --
Comeau has found some chemistry with John Tavares and given the Islanders' offense a shot in the arm. He had a pair of 2-goal games, followed by a 2-assist performance Saturday for 6 points in three games.

Five down -- Five players who are struggling:

Blake Wheeler -- For the second time in two seasons, Wheeler's offensive game has disappeared down the stretch, but this time the Boston Bruins don't have the luxury of a big cushion in the playoff race. Wheeler hasn't had a point in 10 games and played less than 10 minutes in Boston's 2-1 overtime win at Toronto on Saturday.

Kris Letang --
The Penguins recently signed the young defenseman to a four-year contract extension. It's safe to say they want more offensive production from him than they've been getting recently -- he's gone seven games without a point and hasn't had a goal since Jan. 21.

Shane Doan -- Lost amid the celebrations in the desert is the fact that Doan's scoring touch has vanished -- and the Phoenix Coyotes will need him to put the puck in the net if they want any playoff success. Doan, who has averaged 29 goals in the past four seasons, has just 17 -- and none in 23 games since Jan. 31. He's gone without a point in the Coyotes' last four games.

Sergei Samsonov --
Carolina's highly-skilled forward has gone six games without a point and hasn't scored a goal since March 2. He has seen his ice time reduced in the past couple of weeks -- he's down to about 11 minutes a game
Craig Anderson -- Anderson is perhaps the biggest reason for Colorado's surprising season, but he's playing like a goaltender running out of gas. Anderson allowed 15 goals in the Avs' four games last week -- and in Sunday's 5-4 overtime win against San Jose, he was unable to hold a two-goal lead in the final 12 minutes of regulation.

Injuries, news and notes -- The best news in Pittsburgh over the weekend was the return of center Evgeni Malkin, who played Saturday after missing time with a foot injury, and he helped the Penguins rally for a 4-3 overtime win against Atlanta. Malkin has missed a total of 14 games this season; the Penguins are 5-8-1 without him.

Out -- Colorado forward Peter Mueller left Sunday's game against San Jose in the third period after being driven into the boards. He did not return. ... Dallas defenseman Mark Fistric left Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury. ... Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz left Saturday's game against Atlanta with an undisclosed injury and didn't return. ... St. Louis defenseman Barrett Jackman sat out Saturday with an upper-body injury. ... Edmonton's parade of injuries grew when Gilbert Brule injured his ankle; he says it's not broken, but he won't be back this season. ... Columbus defenseman Kris Russell sat out Saturday's game with arm and wrist injuries. ... Florida's Victor Oreskovich (lower body) sat out Saturday's game against the Rangers. Defenseman Bryan Allen left Thursday's game with a rib injury; he sat out Saturday and might miss the rest of the season. The Panthers also say forward Byron Bitz (elbow) is doubtful for the final week. ... Boston defensemen Andrew Ference (groin) and Mark Stuart (hand) missed Saturday's game, though both hope to be back this week. ... Los Angeles center Jeff Halpern left Thursday's game with an upper-body injury and might not be back until the playoffs. ... Wild goaltender Josh Harding is gone for the season and will have hip surgery to repair an injury that has plagued him for weeks.

Returning -- San Jose got some good news in Sunday's 5-4 OT loss to Colorado -- first-line center Joe Thornton returned after missing eight days with a lower-body injury sustained March 27. ... In addition to getting Malkin back Saturday, Pittsburgh also welcomed the return of defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who had missed four games due to illness. ... Dallas center Mike Modano returned Friday after missing 17 days following an appendectomy. ... Vancouver got forward Mikael Samuelsson back Sunday; he had been out since injuring his shoulder March 16. ... Detroit forward Dan Cleary returned Sunday after missing four games with a sore groin. ... Washington hopes to have forward Scott Walker (knee) available Monday; defenseman John Carlson (upper body) and forward Boyd Gordon (back) could play Monday or Tuesday. ... Ottawa forward Milan Michalek (knee) hopes to be back Tuesday. Defenseman Filip Kuba (lower body) might not be back until the playoffs.

Still out -- Calgary still is without three forwards. Daymond Langkow (neck) has missed seven games, while Christopher Higgins (11 games) and Curtis Glencross (nine) have been sidelined by lower-body injuries. ... Chicago defenseman Kim Johnsson's absence due to concussion-like symptoms has reached 11 games. ... Nashville captain Jason Arnott has missed eight games with a concussion; he might be ready this week. ... The Rangers still are without forwards Sean Avery (knee) and Ryan Callahan (leg). ...  Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller, the Ducks' starter all season, has missed five games with back spasms. ... Devils forward Andrew Peters hasn't played since March 25 due to a scratched eye. He's being held out of practice. ... Two key Buffalo forwards, Tim Connolly (foot) and Thomas Vanek (lower body), remain out and have not been cleared to practice. ... Washington hopes center Brendan Morrison (groin) will return for the final two games of the regular season. ... Florida center Gregory Campbell (foot) has missed the Panthers' last eight games. ... Carolina says defenseman Tim Gleason, out since March 13 with a broken foot, likely is done for the season. ... Columbus forwards Chris Clark (knee) and Jared Boll (hand) are not expected back this season. 

The week ahead -- It's the last week of the regular season, with a few playoff berths still on the line. But for 14 of the NHL's 30 teams, it's time to get the golf clubs ready -- there will be no more hockey after this weekend. Half of the League goes out with a bang, playing four times in the final seven days.

Games to watch:

Washington at Pittsburgh (April 6, 7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN2) --
It's the fourth and final battle between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby (Ovi leads 3-0) -- but don't be surprised if they see each other again in a few weeks with a lot more on the line than bragging rights.

New York Islanders at Pittsburgh (April 8, 7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) -- The Isles, who had a couple of franchise-defining moments in Pittsburgh, are the guests as the Penguins play their last regular-season game in Mellon Arena.

Dallas at Minnesota (April 10) --
The Stars end their season in St. Paul -- and franchise icon Mike Modano (with his family in the audience) could be playing his last NHL game not far from where he began his career more than two decades ago playing for the Minnesota North Stars.

Boston at Washington (April 11, Noon ET, NBC, TSN2) -- The Bruins and Capitals meet in the final regular-season edition of NBC's "Game of the Week." The Bruins remain desperate for every point, while the Caps figure to have wrapped up the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's regular-season champs by then.

Edmonton at Anaheim (April 11) -- There will be nothing on the line at Honda Center but pride as the Oilers and Ducks meet in Game No. 1,230 -- the final one on the NHL's 2009-10 schedule.

Tough week ahead:

Boston Bruins --
The Bruins, battling for one of the final playoff berths in the Eastern Conference, get the unhappy task of making two trips to Washington in the same week. They sandwich their visits to the Verizon Center around home games against Buffalo and Carolina, two of the NHL's hottest teams down the stretch.

Buffalo Sabres -- The Sabres finish their home schedule Tuesday against the Rangers, then finish with their last three on the road -- including a season-ending visit to New Jersey that could decide who finishes second in the East.

New York Islanders -- The Isles aren't going to the playoffs, but they'll have a say in who finishes where in the East. New York has four games in six days, starting with a home game against Montreal, followed by two games against Pittsburgh sandwiched around a visit to New Jersey.

Easy week ahead:

Dallas Stars --
The Stars' second straight non-playoff season ends with home games against Chicago and Anaheim, then a visit to Minnesota, where Mike Modano may play his last NHL game not far from where he began his career.

Nashville Predators --
The Predators are the only team that has a two-game week, giving Nashville a chance to get a little extra rest before the playoffs. The Preds visit Phoenix before closing the regular season at home against St. Louis.

Tampa Bay Lightning --
The Bolts spend the last week of their season in Florida, playing three home games before concluding a home-and-home series with a visit to the Panthers. Florida also has three games at home and one with its in-state rival.
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