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Goalie decisions highlight final week of season

Ducks, Stars, Red Wings among teams who need to decide on netminders

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Seven more days. That's it. That's all the time remaining in the 2015-16 regular season that started with an opening faceoff at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Oct. 7.

For some teams, it's seven days to clinch a berth the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For others, it's seven days to lock up their position in the playoffs, potentially secure home-ice advantage in the first round.

It's seven days to try to get some healthy players back in the lineup or rest healthy players to keep them fresh for the start of the playoffs. It's seven days to come to the reality that some of your best players aren't coming back.

And, for some coaches, its seven days to make sure the lineup they want to use in Game 1 is the lineup they should use in Game 1.

With that in mind, here are 10 burning questions teams have to answer before they can start chasing the Stanley Cup:

1. Will injuries do the Lightning in?

Injuries have plagued the Tampa Bay Lightning all season. Nothing has changed at the most important time.

Losing captain Steven Stamkos is a devastating blow. He'll miss 1-3 months after having surgery on Monday to remove a blood clot in his collarbone.

But losing defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured left leg) perhaps for the entire Eastern Conference First Round, if not longer, could be a more crushing blow.

Nobody the Lightning have in Tampa Bay or in their system (Jonathan Drouin?) can replace what Stamkos does in terms of scoring, leading and being a versatile forward who can play center or right wing. But the Lightning can readjust to adapt without him.

Readjusting to adapt without Stralman is harder. He's an all situations, top-two defensemen averaging 22 minutes of ice time per game. He helps make Victor Hedman an elite defenseman, is a possession driver and rarely makes mistakes.

Video: NHL Tonight: Steven Stamkos segment

2. Allen or Elliott in St. Louis?

The decision could already be made since St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is out for the last three games of the regular season with a lower body injury he sustained Sunday night.

Without knowing the severity of his injury, it seems like it would take a lot Allen to start Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round instead of Brian Elliott, who figures to start at least two of the final three games and could go into the playoffs with momentum.

It's a shame too, because Allen should be the goalie the Blues want to use. And that's not a knock on the superbly resilient Elliott.

Allen is likely the Blues' goalie of the present AND future, not Elliott. If they want to stay Stanley Cup contenders for a long time, Allen needs to get the playoff experience. He also needs a chance at redemption from how he flopped in the first round last season.

To get that chance, it appears as if Elliott is going to have to flop this year. And that would be bad news for the Blues.

Moreover, Allen went 2-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .933 save percentage against the Chicago Blackhawks this season. Elliott allowed six goals on 40 shots in 75 minutes against the Blackhawks, who are the Blues' likely opponent in the Western Conference First Round.

Video: STL@COL: Allen denies Mitchell's shorthanded shot

3. Andersen or Gibson in Anaheim?

This one should be easy. John Gibson, for many reasons, including the fact that Frederik Andersen is currently out with a concussion.

Regardless of Andersen's injury, Gibson is the goalie of the future for the Anaheim Ducks. He's the one with the contract for the next three seasons ($2.3 million salary cap charge). Andersen has no contract beyond this season and could be traded in the offseason.

Gibson had a 23-save shutout in his lone appearance against the San Jose Sharks, who would be the Ducks first-round opponent if they finish second in the Pacific Division. He didn't play against the Nashville Predators, who would likely be their opponent if they win the division.

Video: DAL@ANA: Gibson denies Sharp's attempts in the crease

4. Lehtonen or Niemi in Dallas?

Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff told Sirius XM NHL Radio on Friday that goalies Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen will each play in the playoffs because they've been sharing the net all season and they are used to it.

If the Stars win the Central Division and open against the Minnesota Wild, Niemi should have the better chance of starting the series because he had a .927 save percentage (six goals on 82 shots) in three appearances against them this season. Lehtonen had a .897 save percentage (seven goals on 68 shots) in three appearances against the Wild.

If the Stars open against the Chicago Blackhawks, maybe it's Lehtonen who will start. He went 3-0-0 with a .941 save percentage (six goals on 101 shots) in Dallas' last three games against Chicago this season. Niemi had a 20-save shutout against Chicago on Dec. 22, but allowed three goals on 11 shots in one period on Feb. 6. He hasn't faced them since.

Video: DAL@ANA: Niemi denies Cogliano with the blocker

5. Howard or Mrazek, and does it even matter?

It matters for the Detroit Red Wings, but their remarkable playoff streak is in jeopardy of ending at 24 straight seasons because neither goalie Petr Mrazek nor Jimmy Howard were good enough on a consistent basis in March. Mrazek was particularly bad with a 3.72 GAA and .884 save percentage in 10 appearances last month. Howard had a 3.18 GAA and .886 save percentage.

However, Howard has played well enough in his first two starts this month to help Detroit move into third place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the slumping Boston Bruins.

As much as Mrazek is Detroit's goalie of the future, he's plagued by his own issues and Howard should be considered the No. 1 going into the last three games of the season. He made 52 saves on 56 shots in back-to-back wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Wild this past weekend.

But if Red Wings get in, they might need Mrazek. There is no predictability from Detroit's goalies of late.

Video: DET@TOR: Howard denies a pair of chances

6. Is Eric Staal a left wing or a center?

New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault likes Staal's size and experience in the middle, but he also likes the offensive game he can get out of him if he plays on the wing. Staal is free to be more of a shooter when he's on the wing and doesn't have to skate as much.

The presence of Kevin Hayes, another big forward, should make this decision easy for Vigneault.

Staal should play left wing to start the playoffs, like he has been the past few games. He can still take faceoffs, but is a better player for the Rangers when he's on the wing.

Video: PIT@NYR: E. Staal buries Hayes' perfect feed

7. Should the Capitals rest players, including Holtby?

The Washington Capitals have the Presidents' Trophy locked up, but they can't go into the playoffs playing emotionless, average hockey with players who are out of their routines. Plus, goalie Braden Holtby needs two wins to set an NHL record for most wins in a season.

It's the understanding that flipping the switch at the start of the playoffs is hard to do when you are playing a first-round series against a team that has been fighting to get in for several weeks.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz needs to find the balance in Washington's last four games between keeping his players fresh and keeping them involved. He could reduce some minutes in games, but the only game any of Washington's key players should miss is the last one, Sunday against the Ducks.

Video: WSH@COL: Holtby makes a fine save to deny Landeskog

8. Should the Blackhawks be banking on Darling?

Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford hasn't played since March 14 because of an upper-body injury. However, he has done on-ice workouts the past two days, is turning the corner in his recovery and could make one start before the playoffs, coach Joel Quenneville said Sunday.

To bank on him being back for Game 1 would be wrong, but the Blackhawks can now have legitimate hope, which is more than they had even late last week.

Getting a healthy Crawford back for the playoffs would obviously be significant for Chicago both because of his experience as a two-time Stanley Cup winner and the season he was having before his injury. He has 35 wins, a .926 save percentage and 2.32 GAA.

Video: BOS@CHI: Darling turns aside a wrist shot by Eriksson

9. How serious is Hamonic's injury?

New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic is out for the remainder of the regular season with a lower-body injury. The team has not said anything about Hamonic's availability for playoffs or about the severity of the injury.

It's hard to speculate, but Hamonic's injury has to be of great concern to the Islanders. He's a 25-minute-per-game defenseman who plays against the opposition's top lines and routinely does a quality job shutting them down. He's the Islanders best all-around defenseman.

The Islanders have no one to replace Hamonic, who is arguably their second most important player behind captain John Tavares. It's hard to see them winning in the first round without him.

Video: PIT@NYI: Hamonic blocks final-second shot to seal win

10. Should the Kings be concerned?

The answer here is TBD.

The Los Angeles Kings have lost their past four games against teams heading to the playoffs in the Western Conference by a combined 15-7 score. They gave up three to the Stars, five to the San Jose Sharks, two to the Wild and five to the Predators. In addition, they allowed four goals to the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.

That has all happened since they clinched a playoff berth on March 19, so maybe it's a coincidence. But maybe this is a bigger problem. The Kings have been outscored 12-4 in the third period in their past seven games.

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