Here are the players to watch for each team in these last few weeks…
David Krejci… Back when the Bruins were playing like the best team in the league, Krejci was a huge part of their success. But since Michael Ryder went down to injury in February, the second-year Czech hasn’t been the same player. He’s lost on-ice chemistry with fellow youngster Blake Wheeler, and his production has fallen off dramatically; you almost wonder if he hit a wall (figuratively). For Boston to get back to its prior form, they need secondary guys like Krejci to be at the top of their game.
New Jersey Devils-
Martin Brodeur… There’s no question that New Jersey has been the best team in the NHL since Brodeur’s return from injury. This team has Cup contender written all over it. If the winningest goalie in league history continues on this pace, the Devils will be the favorites to come out of the East heading into the postseason.
Jose Theodore… I hate to say it, but Washington’s fate rests on the shoulders of Mr. Theodore. Not Alex or Alex… not Nicklas… not Mike. Jose Theodore is the X-factor for this team; and that’s not a good thing as he’s been awfully inconsistent all year. For the Caps to become a true Cup contender, Theodore has to be at the top of his game. Anything less than that means another early exit come April.
Simon Gagne… I always tend to forget that Gagne had back-to-back 40-goal seasons just 2 seasons ago. They really missed him last year in the playoffs when they went up against Pittsburgh. This is a guy that could be huge for the Flyers later in the spring; a healthy Gagne is dangerous. If he can stay hot going into the playoffs, Philly could go far.
Marc-Andre Fleury… Since Fleury was pulled in Washington on Feb. 22 after giving up 5 goals, he is 8-0-2 and playing like the goalie we saw last postseason. If he keeps this up, they won’t just be a dangerous team in the playoffs; they could win it all. Kunitz & Guerin have been tremendous pickups by GM Ray Shero, but a healthy & consistent Fleury come playoff time will put them over the top.
New York Rangers-
Sean Avery… Its official: Avery is the Rangers’ heartbeat; the team is 5-2 with him in the lineup so far. He’s not going to win a playoff series for this team, but he seems to be the backbone to New York’s success. It’s almost like all the weight has been taken off of Gomez’s and Drury’s shoulders. Looking back, GM Glen Sather was stupid to let him get away last summer.
Carey Price… The Habs aren’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Price doesn’t play well. Last night’s shootout performance (3 goals on 3 shots) was awful. Bob Gainey can’t rely on this kid anymore, and has to give Halak another shot to take over the top spot in net. But he won’t, so Price has to play much better for Montreal to have any shot at winning a series, let alone the Cup.
Eric Staal… The re-acquisition of Erik Cole has helped Staal a bunch; just see the 6-point performance in Tampa! Staal has the capability to carry a team when he’s playing at a peak performance. The ‘Canes playoff hopes rest on his shoulders once again. Will he come through in the clutch??
Tomas Vokoun… You can feel their playoff hopes slipping out of their grasps. But there’s still some time for the Panthers to determine their own fate. Tomas Vokoun has to play much better than he has this month. Florida’s 2-3-2 in March, and starting to buckle underneath the playoff pressure. Vokoun has to play to the level he’s capable of for them to grab a spot in the postseason.
Thomas Vanek… No question ‘bout this one. With Ryan Miller out, he becomes the on-ice leader for this hockey club. He hasn’t played well since his jaw injury… and this goal drought for the Sabres could ultimately cost them a playoff spot for the 2nd straight year. Vanek has to score, score, score… and time is running out.
Tomorrow I’ll have my key players from the Western Conference!
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