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Twelve pressing questions for season's final weeks

by Dan Rosen /

Is anyone surprised that with 16 days left in the sprint known as the 2012-13 NHL regular season, there are still so many lingering questions that have no definitive answers?

The answer to that question, of course, should be no.

The hockey world is set for a frantic final two weeks of the season, and here in no particular order are the 12 most pressing questions as identified by

Will the Islanders lock up a playoff berth?

Arguably the biggest surprise of the second half of this season has been the dramatic turnaround of the New York Islanders.

The Islanders are 8-1-1 in their past 10 games and currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points, the same as the Ottawa Senators, who have played one fewer game. The Islanders will move into sixth place if Ottawa loses in regulation on Friday to the New Jersey Devils.

But the Islanders, who haven't made the playoffs since 2007, will have to continue to win on the road in order to clinch a playoff berth.

Their next two games are at home (Saturday against the New York Rangers and next Tuesday against the Florida Panthers), but the Islanders close the regular season on a five-game road trip that will take them all over the Eastern Conference, with stops in Toronto, Winnipeg, Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo.

The good thing is the Islanders are 12-5-2 on the road, including 8-2-1 in their past 11 away from Nassau Coliseum.

Can Ovechkin win the Hart Trophy?

Alex Ovechkin is on a tear, and if he continues this way he may just pull a Corey Perry and win the Hart Trophy.

Two years ago, Perry scored 19 goals and dished out 11 assists over the final 16 games of the season to not just win the Rocket Richard Trophy with 50 goals, but also win the Hart Trophy with 67 first-place votes. He beat out League scoring champion Daniel Sedin, who finished with 104 points but 57 first-place votes.

Ovechkin has 17 goals and seven assists in the past 16 games. He is tied with Steven Stamkos for the League-lead with 26 goals and is sixth in scoring with 44 points.

He has seven games left, including five at home, where he has only nine goals in 19 games as opposed to his 17 goals in 22 road games.

Will Sidney Crosby return before the end of the regular season?

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 41 | PTS: 56
SOG: 124 | +/-: 26
The NHL's leading scorer hasn't played since March 30, when his jaw was broken by a deflected shot. Despite missing the past five games he still leads the League with 56 points, five more than Stamkos, and he's still the likely favorite for the Hart Trophy.

Crosby has shown signs of coming around, as he spoke with the media earlier this week and he joined his teammates on their road trip to Florida for games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers.

The Penguins have not offered any target date for Crosby to return.

Can the Red Wings hold on to keep the streak?

The Detroit Red Wings are in control of their own destiny of reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a 22nd straight season, but it's never been as close as it is now. They have 44 points, two more than the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes. Both teams have eight games remaining.

However, the Dallas Stars are also in Detroit's rearview mirror with 41 points and nine games remaining. Despite giving up Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy and Jaromir Jagr before the trade deadline, the Stars have won three in a row to stay in the race.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are also hanging around with 41 points and eight games remaining.

Detroit could have used that second point Thursday against the San Jose Sharks, but it lost in a shootout. Worse yet for the Red Wings, they begin a four-game road trip Friday in Chicago. They also travel to Nashville, Calgary and Vancouver before returning to Joe Louis Arena for three in a row against the Coyotes, Kings and Predators.

Do the Stars have enough to actually make it?

On paper, no. But the Stars are defying the odds and staying in the hunt for a playoff berth in the Western Conference without Morrow (now with Pittsburgh), Roy (now with Vancouver) and Jagr (now with Boston).

Dallas has won its last three in impressive fashion by outscoring the Ducks, Sharks and Kings by a combined 13-6. Ray Whitney, Alex Chiasson and Vernon Fiddler have all had two-goal games.

However, the Stars could have some injury trouble in net, with goalie Kari Lehtonen currently listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. His injury is not considered serious. In fact, Lehtonen traveled with the team to Nashville for their game Friday and could even play.

The schedule is not kind to the Stars. After playing in Nashville on Friday, they still have games against Chicago, Vancouver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Jose, Columbus and Detroit. The games against the Blackhawks, Blues, Kings and Sharks are on the road.

Will the Blackhawks discover a No. 1 goalie?

Corey Crawford
Corey Crawford
Goalie - CHI
RECORD: 15-4-4
GAA: 2.01 | SVP: 0.922
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have both been mostly excellent in splitting duties for the Chicago Blackhawks, who appear on their way to winning the Presidents' Trophy. All that means is coach Joel Quenneville has a difficult decision on who he wants to start in goal down the stretch and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Crawford is 15-4-4 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 23 appearances; Emery is 15-1-0 with a 1.90 GAA and .924 save percentage in 19 appearances.

It's possible, perhaps likely, that Quenneville rides the hot hand, much the same way Detroit coach Mike Babcock did in 2008 when he had both Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood. Hasek started the Red Wings' opening-round series against the Nashville Predators, but he got pulled in Game 4 and Detroit rode Osgood all the way to the Stanley Cup championship.

Quenneville, Crawford, Emery and the Hawks would take that.

Will the Ducks discover a No. 1 goalie?

Same question for the Ducks and maybe the same answer for coach Bruce Boudreau, who has to choose between Jonas Hiller and Victor Fasth.

Hiller is 13-5-4 with a 2.50 GAA and .906 save percentage in 23 appearances, including 22 starts; Fasth is 14-4-1 with a 2.17 GAA and .923 save percentage in 21 appearances, including 19 starts.

Boudreau, though, said he wants to identify a No. 1 before the playoffs begin, so now is the time. It may very well be Fasth, who started four in a row from April 1-7 and went 3-1. Hiller started the next two, but he was pulled in the Ducks most recent game after giving up four goals on 16 shots in two periods against the last-place Colorado Avalanche.

Do the Devils have a run in them?

The Devils were seventh in the Eastern Conference and had a four-point cushion over the ninth-place Rangers when they lost Ilya Kovalchuk to a shoulder injury on March 23. They haven't won a game since (0-4-4) and have fallen into 10th place, four points behind both the eighth-place Rangers and the ninth-place Jets.

Kovalchuk is nearing a return, but the Devils are running out of time with only eight games left. The good thing is they have a chance to make up the four points against the Rangers by playing them twice, including on the final day of the regular season, but six out of their final eight games are against teams that are currently in a playoff position.

Will the Bruins get healthy?

Patrice Bergeron
Patrice Bergeron
Center - BOS
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 31
SOG: 93 | +/-: 23
The Boston Bruins are playing without center Patrice Bergeron and left wing Brad Marchand, who are both out with concussions. They've gone 3-2 without Bergeron and lost their only game without Marchand, 2-1 to the Islanders.

Boston can handle the injuries now because its playoff position is secure, but winning the Northeast Division is going to be difficult without both of those top-six forwards.

Bergeron is getting close, as he was back skating with the Bruins during an optional morning skate Thursday, but Marchand's situation is still unknown as he suffered his injury Wednesday night in New Jersey.

Are the Jets peaking at the right time?

The Winnipeg Jets have won three in a row to pull into a virtual tie with the Rangers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and just two points back of the Capitals for first in the Southeast Division.

The Jets have more regulation/overtime wins (the final tiebreaker) than all the teams they're chasing, but they also have the fewest amount of games remaining.

The Jets have only six games left. The Rangers and Senators have eight, while the Capitals and Islanders have seven. The trailing Devils have eight games remaining.

However, the Jets have found their game by beating up on the East's weaker teams such as the Flyers, Sabres and Panthers since they started their current six-game homestand. They still have three more games left against the Lightning, Hurricanes and Islanders before they hit the road to play in Buffalo and Montreal.

What was looking bleak a week ago, when the Jets were on a five-game losing streak, isn't anymore.

Are the Rangers ready to start a hot streak?

It's been a difficult, inconsistent season for the New York Rangers, but they have played better since acquiring Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard and John Moore at the trade deadline. The Rangers are actually 4-2 in April and they have a huge game coming up Saturday on Long Island.

The goal will be to build on their recent 3-2 shootout win over Toronto. If the Rangers can do that, it's possible that they can finally put some separation between themselves and the East's bottom seven because their next three games are against the Flyers, Panthers and Sabres.

Will Brian Elliott give up another goal?

Brian Elliott
Brian Elliott
Goalie - STL
RECORD: 8-6-1
GAA: 2.68 | SVP: 0.892
He probably will, but when? Elliott has recaptured his form from a year ago and has helped the St. Louis Blues get back to playing the style that made them so successful last season.

Elliott has three straight shutouts and is riding a scoreless streak of 189:31. He's 5-0 with a .967 save percentage since returning to the Blues from a quick conditioning stint in the American Hockey League.

The Blues have won six in a row and have climbed into sixth place in the Western Conference; they're just one point behind the Sharks for fifth. As good as Elliott has been, the Blues have allowed on average just 22 shots per game in the past three games.

Elliott's hot streak coincides with Jaroslav Halak's groin injury. He has missed the past four games and may not be ready to return before the playoffs begin.


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