Players to watch down the stretch
Henrik Lundqvist and Chris Drury
Imported from Buffalo last summer with a reputation for excellence in the clutch, Drury shines brightest at this time of year. The Rangers, who are battling for one of the Eastern Conference's final seeds, will need the center's grit as well as some consistently stout netminding from Lundqvist, who is still rounding into form after a mid-season slump that included eight losses in 12 starts.
Sidelined 10 months by a chronic ankle problem, Forsberg has returned to the city of his greatest NHL glory (two Stanley Cups, 2003 Hart Trophy) and not a moment too soon. The Avs are fighting for a playoff spot without injured stars Ryan Smyth (concussion, shoulder separation) and Marek Svatos (knee). How quickly can the 34-year old Forsberg find his old magic and will it be enough?
The most significant deadline day addition, Hossa (26 goals, 56 points) was immediately sidelined after tweaking his knee in his Penguins debut. Once he returns he'll play on a line with Sidney Crosby and should give the rising, rapidly convalescing Pens a deadly triple threat with Hart candidate Evgeni Malkin.
Bryzgalov's arrival from Anaheim on waivers in mid-November sparked the rise of Phoenix from cellar-dweller to playoff contender. A dark horse to grab the eighth spot in the West, the Coyotes face a brutal stretch drive against the NHL's best teams and need the third-year veteran to be almost flawless.
One of the centerpieces of the Flyers' rebuilding effort, Briere was given an eight-year, $52-million contract. He has produced a spotty season (22 goals, 35 assists) after last year's 95-point campaign, and was recently sidelined by a shoulder injury. The injury-riddled Flyers need all the spark and production they can get from their playmaking center as they claw for the final spot in the East.
It's often said that as goes Luongo, so go the Canucks. That's certainly true now. To crack the postseason party, offensively-challenged Vancouver (25th in goals) needs a Vezina-worthy performance from its All-Star netminder, who was so gallant in the postseason last year. But the defensive corps has been slow to recover from injuries and Luongo has been disconcertingly inconsistent. No late lead has been safe.
The Habs, the Eastern Conference's surprise power, raised eyebrows by entrusting their playoff future to their erratic rookie goaltender, who was drafted fifth overall in 2005 and demoted to the minors earlier this season. Since the deadline day deal that sent prior No. 1 netminder Cristobal Huet to Washington, Price was sharp while beating the Sabres and Devils (three total goals allowed), then he was eaten alive by the Sharks (six). Stay tuned.
The 29-year old winger is white hot, riding a streak of points in 27 of his last 29 games and establishing a career high with 25 goals. Not coincidentally the Predators have hung around to contend for the West's final playoff berth.
With Buffalo's backline diminished by the deadline deal that sent Brian Campbell to San Jose, the Sabres' playoff hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of their 27-year old goaltender. As if the Buffalo faithful don't have enough suspense while their team fights for the East's final berth, Miller is battling a recent slump that includes only two wins in his last six starts and a total of 21 goals allowed.
His vastly improved team is still a playoff long shot, but the top overall draft pick of 2007 is locked in an exciting race with Washington's Nicklas Backstrom for the rookie scoring lead as well as the Calder Trophy.
One of the season's unlikely success stories, the 33-year-old journeyman (a ninth-round pick by Colorado in 1994) wrested the No. 1 spot from Manny Fernandez early this season and has produced and All-Star year. If his form holds the lunch bucket Bruins will prove to be a most unpleasant foe into the playoffs.
Whether the Caps complete their remarkable turnaround with a playoff berth will depend in large part on the play of their newly-acquired netminder. Arriving from Montreal at the deadline, Huet has quickly shown signs of being able to provide the reliability the Caps crave. He beat the Bruins and Devils in his first two starts, while allowing only two goals.