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Playoff Countdown: Nine potential game-changers

by Adam Kimelman

The conclusion to 2013-14 NHL regular season is fast approaching. After game play Friday, the League is down to 72 games remaining on the schedule, with 11 to be played Saturday. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff qualification, playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the nine-day countdown to the end of the season April 13 and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16, will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.

In the fight for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams depend on their best players to step up and become their teams' best players.

However, it's awfully hard to do that from the trainers' table.

A number of impact players currently reside on their teams' injured list. However, a few of those key performers have been healing rapidly with the goal of getting back for the final days of the regular-season push for the playoffs, or at least at some point in the postseason.

Here are nine players who could have game-changing effects on the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche -- Duchene was in the midst of the best season of his career when he collided with teammate Jamie McGinn on the first shift of a game March 29 and sustained a knee injury. Duchene is expected to miss about four weeks, which would target his return for some point during the first round of the playoffs.

Duchene leads the Avalanche with a career-best 70 points and his 23 goals are tied for third. He's been the team's most consistent offensive force, one that will be difficult to replace. In the latest developments rookie Nathan MacKinnon moved into Duchene's spot on the top line.

It won't just be MacKinnon who has to raise his game until Duchene returns.

Teammate Ryan O'Reilly told the Denver Post that Duchene's absence represented "a challenge to step up. … He's big on the power play and big with his offensive ability, the way he moves the puck and creates with the puck. So for me, I have to step up that way and make sure I'm contributing. Nate's a great player as well and has great speed in the middle. It's going to be good."

Cam Fowler, Anaheim Ducks -- Forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne get the majority of the attention when it comes to the Ducks. Fowler, in his fourth season, has emerged as the lynchpin of the defense.

Fowler sprained a ligament in his left knee in the second period of the Ducks' March 14 game against the Avalanche. At the time of the injury the Ducks estimated his return in 3-5 weeks, which would mean sometime early in the postseason.

Though the Ducks' record hasn't suffered without Fowler -- they're 6-2-1 without him -- his importance shows up in the team allowing three goals or more in a game four times in nine games without him. Fowler also is the team's best skater among its defense corps, with his speed and passing ability a key to the team's transition attack.


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Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks -- One of the highlights of the first month of the season was Hertl's dazzling between-the-legs goal against the New York Rangers on Oct. 8, his fourth goal of the game. The 20-year-old rookie earned a top-six spot for the Sharks and gave them remarkable scoring depth.

Hertl's season came to an abrupt end in the first period of a game against the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 19. He needed surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments and there was no timetable listed for his return. However, he began skating Feb. 27, giving hope to a chance for a postseason return.

The Sharks certainly have done fine without Hertl, but with a long run in the postseason the goal in San Jose, the ability to add a player with Hertl's offensive flair at any point this spring only would bolster the Sharks' hopes of winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks -- Only one other time since they arrived in the League together have the Blackhawks played a regular-season game without Kane and Toews in the lineup at the same time, and that was to rest them on the final day of the regular season before the start of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now they'll play the final two weeks of the 2013-14 regular season without their two top players.

The Blackhawks already were without Kane, who injured his left leg March 19, when Toews sustained an upper-body injury March 30. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said he expects Toews to be "100 percent for the playoffs," and there's hope Kane could return just before the end of the regular season.

Chicago has already clinched a playoff spot, so that worry at least is allayed. The goal of passing the Colorado Avalanche for second in the Central Division, however, became a lot harder. Regardless of where the Blackhawks finish, knowing their dynamic duo will be back at some point during the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs keeps the defending Stanley Cup champions among the favorites to win it again in 2014.

Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins -- One of the Penguins stars is expected to return just before the playoffs begin or early in the first round, while another remains a question mark.

Malkin has been out since breaking his foot during the first period of a game March 23 against the St. Louis Blues. The original diagnosis was for him to miss 2-3 weeks, which at the long end would bring him back prior to the Penguins' playoff opener.

Letang's return remains a tougher question to answer. The defenseman hasn't played since he had a stroke in late January. He has progressed from skating on his own to practicing with the team, and even took part in special-teams drills in Winnipeg on Thursday. However Letang still needs medical clearance to return to game action; whether that comes at any point this season remains unknown.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues -- After scoring eight goals in 38 games as a rookie last season, Tarasenko emerged as a big piece of the Blues' offense this season with 21 goals in 64 games prior to hurting his hand March 15 against the Nashville Predators, an injury that was supposed to keep him out 3-6 weeks.

How much has Tarasenko's loss hurt the Blues? They were averaging 3.16 goals per game prior to his injury; in seven games without him that number has plummeted to 2.12 per game (17 goals in eight games).

Coach Ken Hitchcock has juggled his lines trying to find secondary scoring to complement the Blues' top unit of David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen, but hasn't found the right combinations. And as Hitchcock recently said, one-line teams don't win the Stanley Cup.

"We're trying to get more people connected and involved in the finishing part of our game," he said. "You can't win with just one line doing that."

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings -- Injuries up and down the lineup have put the Red Wings' NHL-record 23-season streak of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs at risk, but the biggest loss might be the absence of its captain following back surgery Feb. 21.

The Red Wings initially said Zetterberg would be re-evaluated eight weeks after his procedure. The best Detroit could hope for is a deep run into the postseason that would allow Zetterberg potentially to return for the Eastern Conference Final.

Zetterberg would be a welcome addition to Detroit's postseason roster no matter when it comes. He's a proven playoff performer who ranks third among active players with 55 postseason goals, to go along with a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy.


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