With the race for playoff berths so tight in each conference, there will be several players who have a major impact on whether or not their teams are playing hockey this spring, or playing golf.
From where I stand, these are the players I expect to be having a major impact down the stretch.
and Tomas Vokoun
, Washington Capitals
: This is why Ovi is supposed to be great -- this time of year. They need him as a leader and a scorer. Vokoun was brought in this offseason for this specific reason. They traded away Varlamov, the young goaltender, so Vokoun would be the guy that does it. That means this is the time for both of these guys to show what they're worth.
Goalie - WSH
GAA: 2.45 | SVP: 0.920
This offseason, Washington thought Vokoun's international experience and the battles he had been in prepared him for this even though he has limited experience in the NHL's chase for the postseason after all those years in Florida. Am I in love with him? Do I think he's one of the all-time greats? No, but I do like having a veteran goaltender. I like having a guy I know isn't going to have trouble sleeping at night, someone who isn't going to have to listen to Dr. Phil during the day to calm himself down. This is why you got a veteran goaltender. Now you've got to live with your choice.
, Phil Kessel
, Joffrey Lupul
, Toronto Maple Leafs
: All season these guys have been the main force for Toronto. This is when you find out if your players and your team are great. It's easy to play when you know you're in the first spot or you're out of the playoffs. But every night, when your season is on the line and you're fighting for the playoffs and these two points might get you in and these two points might get you out, that's when you find out who's great. I think Kessel, Phaneuf and Lupul have been those guys all year long for Toronto and I think they're going to determine whether or not Toronto makes it into the playoffs.
, Kris Versteeg
and Tomas Fleischmann
, Florida Panthers
: Florida is very similar to Toronto in that it's really been a group of three that's been the driving force. This line has been their top group offensively, it's been their power play all season long and they're going to be the guys Florida needs going down the stretch. Other guys have to do their jobs, of course. They'll need good goaltending and good defense, but those three have been their whole offense all year long and they need to continue to be.
, Los Angeles Kings
: This is his race. Period. If L.A. gets in, Jonathan Quick
is going to have to be the best goalie in the Western Conference, because they just don't score many goals. He's shown that he's a guy that can do that, though. The Kings only have 120 goals for; that pales in comparison to Detroit or Vancouver. A defensive team like St. Louis has more goals. Phoenix, which has never been a big offensive team, has more goals. The Columbus Blue Jackets
have more goals. For the Kings to make the playoffs, Jonathan Quick
is going to have to be great. Plain and simple.
Left Wing - PHX
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 35 | PTS: 51
SOG: 123 | +/-: 19
and Ray Whitney
, Phoenix Coyotes
: I think right now the Tampa Bay Lightning
are wishing they had held on to Mike Smith
, and I also think Ray Whitney
is just a great story. Whitney is leading the team in scoring despite being one of the older guys. He's still a force on the power play, he's still quick and he's still the smartest guy on the ice every night. I think he's a real leader for Phoenix and he and Smith, who has been tremendous lately, will need to keep playing well for the Coyotes to make it into the postseason.
, Calgary Flames
: Just like Jonathan Quick
in L.A., it's going to come down to Kiprusoff this time of year. Most nights that Calgary wins, it's Kipper who's the first star. He just got his 300th win and he's playing as well as he's played since he became a Flame, so he's obviously the key up in Calgary.
, Mike Ribeiro
, Jamie Benn
, Dallas Stars
: With Brenden Morrow
out, your best players will have to be your best players and in Dallas that falls on these guys. They'll need to help Lehtonen out so he can go back to being the best goalie in the League like he was earlier this season, and Ribeiro and Benn will need to start putting the puck back in the net.
Whoever is in goal, Chicago Blackhawks
: If you look at the records of Corey Crawford
or Ray Emery
, they're simply not getting the job done. Whether it's one of those guys or it's somebody out there they go get, the goalie is going to be the key, and I'll be surprised if the Blackhawks don't go out there and get somebody at the deadline. The obvious choice might be Evgeni Nabokov
from the Islanders, but with the way he's played lately, his price is going up every day. There aren't very many options out there for Chicago, but they need to be careful as the cost gets higher with his play. Still, whomever it is in net is going to be a key component for Chicago down the stretch and in the playoffs.