As we inch towards the playoffs, there are certain players on certain teams that need to kick their game up a notch before April 14 rolls around. Here are my top five players (on playoff contenders) who need step up – now!
1. Thomas Vanek As it sits right now, the Buffalo Sabres are a good enough all-around team to make some noise and challenge Washington and/or Pittsburgh in a seven-game series. Maybe not beat them, but challenge them. A cameo appearance of the real Thomas Vanek could change that. He has the ability to be the Sabres’ answer to Ovechkin or Crosby (goal-scoring wise). Vanek is a great talent having an off-year. If he kicks it up a notch in April and May, don’t be surprised to see Buffalo still playing in June. 2. Jose Theodore / Semyon Varlamov Last year, all it took was 60 minutes before Bruce Boudreau surprisingly turned to then-rookie Varlamov. Theodore was awful in Game 1 vs. the Rangers, and rode the pine the rest of the way. How will he fare this time around?? In his last three playoff seasons, he has posted a 3.14 GAA between the Avalanche and Capitals. If he’s on a short leash again this year, Varlamov will certainly see some action. He also has to be better in the playoffs, compared to his second round debacle vs. Pittsburgh a year ago. 3. Antti Niemi / Cristobal Huet Another team with some questions between the pipes is Chicago. Niemi and Huet have played musical chairs in the crease this season, and it’s still unclear who’ll get the nod come playoff time. Joel Quenneville doesn’t have much time to decide, but my money is on Niemi to at least get the start in Game 1 unless Huet steals the show down the stretch. The Blackhawks’ talent up front can carry them in an opening round series vs. Colorado or Nashville, but the goaltending has to step up and be clutch against the big boys in the West. 4. Alexei Kovalev When GM Bryan Murray signed Kovalev to a hefty two-year pact this summer, he was probably expecting more production out of the veteran forward. Last night’s overtime winner in Washington was his first point since the Olympic break. His offensive production has come in waves in his first year with the Senators. 7 of his 18 goals came in 2 separate games this winter against Carolina and Philly. Kovalev, who was a point-per-game-player in the playoffs with Montreal, needs to add some offensive punch to Ottawa’s lineup this spring. 5. David Legwand While Legwand does play a really good defensive-minded game, his lack of production over the years on the other end of the ice has driven Predators fans crazy. With Jason Arnott sidelined for who-knows-how-long with a supposed concussion, Legwand has become the team’s top center… which isn’t a good thing with two weeks before the playoffs. Needless to say, Legwand has to step up and at least create scoring chances – with the occasional goal – and help the Preds accomplish their goal of getting out of the first round.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.