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Players that could alter playoff races down stretch

by Dave Lozo
The NHL Trade Deadline has thankfully -- for everyone involved -- passed, and we can now focus on the drive toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There are a plethora of teams on the cusp of the playoffs and others trying to climb into a top-four spot during the final 20 games or so. There are some individuals who have the ability to have a major impact on what happens during the final push, and these six will have a big say in the fates of their teams:

Semyon Varlamov, G, Colorado Avalanche -- The 23-year-old hasn't exactly lived up to his billing after he was acquired during the summer from the Caps for first- and second-round picks. But he's won three straight entering March, stopping 87 of 89 shots to push the Avs into serious playoff contention. If Varlamov can heat up during the final six weeks, the No. 8 seed is realistic for Colorado. Some food for thought: Varlamov has allowed just seven even-strength goals in his past seven games.


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Jeff Carter, F, Los Angeles Kings -- There's no team on the cusp of the playoffs more in need of scoring, and Carter could be the difference between the Kings reaching the playoffs and clearing out their lockers in early April. The perennial 30-goal scorer was acquired before the deadline from Columbus and has yet to score in two games with his new club. If the former Flyer doesn't find any magic reunited with Mike Richards, the Kings are in trouble.

Kari Lehtonen, G, Dallas Stars -- To open the season, Lehtonen went 7-0-0 and 11-1-0 and allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of 12 starts. The Stars had a chance to deal Steve Ott and others at the deadline, but GM Joe Nieuwendyk showed faith in his roster by leaving it untouched. The Stars have 19 games remaining, and if Lehtonen finishes the season the way he started it, Nieuwendyk's faith will be rewarded with a playoff spot.

Alex Ovechkin, F, Washington Capitals
-- It's nearly time to stop mentioning Ovechkin among the League's most dangerous players. He's No. 44 in scoring and his 29 even-strength points have him tied for No. 75 with Nashville's Sergei Kostitsyn. But Ovechkin still has the talent to be a dominant player, and the Capitals need that vintage Ovechkin down the stretch. If he can flip the switch during the final 20 games, he has the ability to carry the Capitals to another Southeast Division title.

Phil Kessel, F, Toronto Maple Leafs -- GM Brian Burke decided against making a deal that would improve the Leafs' shaky goaltending situation -- or any situation for that matter, as he didn't make a trade -- which leaves it all on the offense. Linemate and second-leading scorer Joffrey Lupul was seen wearing a soft cast on his wrist, which means he may not be at 100 percent the rest of the way. Kessel has 31 goals in 62 games, and he may need to increase that 41-goal pace even more if the Leafs want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Ilya Bryzgalov, G, Philadelphia Flyers -- The quirky goaltender has rarely seen his save percentage rise above .900 since October, and his poor play is a big reason the Flyers are in fifth in the East and not first. He's 0-4 against the East-leading Rangers this season; if Bryzgalov could've found a way to win two of those games, the Flyers would be far closer to the conference's top spot. As it stands, the Flyers are in a battle for home-ice in a first-round series, and Bryzgalov getting out of the woods would go a long way toward making that -- and a deep playoff run -- happen.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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