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Key injuries will impact playoff races

The Islanders, Stars and Canadiens could see their playoff fortunes doomed by injuries to key players.

There's no good time for injuries in the NHL, but as the regular-season calendar goes, right now is just about the worst.

The trade deadline has passed. Playoff seeding is on the line. So when a key player goes down, it's all hand on deck and hope for the best.

That's the case in Brooklyn, where the Islanders learned this week they'll be without Jaroslav Halak for the rest of the regular season, and possibly into the playoffs, after the veteran starter suffered a lower-body injury in Tuesday's crucial 2–1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The news came down as the Isles were playing some of their best hockey of the year. They'd just capped off a 6-1 road trip on Sunday with a gritty 6–4 victory over the Rangers that pulled them to within three points of their rivals in the battle for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Halak was a key figure in that run, allowing just five goals in his four starts prior to the Rangers game.

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But now the torch is passed to Thomas Greiss. And that should have Isles fans worried.

To be fair, the 30-year-old has been one of the season's best surprises. Plucked out of free agency with a two-year, $3 million offer by Islanders GM Garth Snow, Greiss has posted a 2.23 goal-against average and .929 save percentage.

It's also fair to say he's outperformed Halak (2.30 GAA, .919 save percentage) at times. But he's excelled as a No. 2, not as a starter. There's a difference, and it's not insignificant.

That was apparent as New York dropped a 4–3 shootout decision to the lowly Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. Greiss was generally sharp, making 16 of his 33 stops in the third period as the Leafs took advantage of the Isles' dead legs. But he also failed to hold the one-goal lead that Ryan Strome created with just over five minutes left in the game and he was outdueled in the shootout by his rookie counterpart Garret Sparks.

It was just one game, but with little margin for error in the jam-packed Metro, Greiss has to prove that he's more than just a fill-in if the Isles are going to survive past the first round.

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There are serious concerns in Dallas as well after top-four blueliner Jason Demers (upper body) joined John Klingberg (lower body) and Jordie Benn (lower body) on IR. Though Klingberg and Benn are expected back shortly, the likely loss of Demers for the rest of the regular season puts an end to Lindy Ruff's plan to roll five defenders down the stretch. That means a greater reliance on the team's promising but untested youngsters like Patrik Nemeth and the recently recalled Stephen Johns. And that's a group that's already struggled to hold the fort at various times this season.

The deadline acquisition of Kris Russell looks particularly serendipitous now. He's arguably been Dallas's best defender over the past couple of games, but he'll have to step up as well. With 14 games to go, Dallas is locked in a three-way battle for Central Division supremacy with the Blackhawks and Blues. The team that comes out on top will likely face the second wild card (either Minnesota or Colorado) in the first round of the playoffs. The two clubs that fall short will face each other in what should be the most brutal matchup of the opening round. With Demers gone, the Stars will be hard-pressed to avoid that showdown.

The Canadiens have been hammered by injuries this season, including one to goaltender Carey Price that essentially ended their playoff hopes. The latest to join him on IR is Brendan Gallagher, who will be out two to three weeks with the lower-body injury he suffered during Saturday’s 4–2 loss to the Jets.

It's a tough break for a player who was hoping to make his case for inclusion on Team Canada's World Cup roster, but in this case Montreal might be better off for his absence.

Maple Leafs and the textbook tank

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The Habs were headed for the lottery one way or the other. Losing Gallagher, a player who finds a way to make an impact every single night, might lead to an extra ball or two in the hopper (not that anyone in Montreal is even thinking of the T word). It also should provide more important minutes for Sven Andrighetto. The 22-year-old Swiss winger looked solid on the top line against Dallas, racking up a pair of assists while matching the pace and intensity of budding star Alex Galchenyuk.

Gallagher's injury has opened the door. It's up to Andrighetto to makes the most of this chance.

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