Each NHL Team's X-Factor Heading into the Stretch Run

Jason Sapunka@moreSapunkaCorrespondent IIMarch 7, 2012

Each NHL Team's X-Factor Heading into the Stretch Run

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    In less than two months the NHL will begin its playoffs.


    Some teams are ready to work towards what they've been striving for these many months. Others are trying to sort out some issues before they get to the playoffs.

    Many are just scrambling for a spot.

    Here is the most important focal point for each NHL team for the remainder of the 2011-12 NHL regular season.

Anaheim Ducks: The Top Line

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    Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan are all far behind their point production from last season, which is a major reason why the team is not in the playoff hunt.

    Anaheim is unlikely to make the playoffs this season, as they sit seven points out of the eighth spot.

    However, if this incredibly talented offensive line can get going, anything can happen.

Boston Bruins: The Offense

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    With Nathan Horton and Rich Peverley out with injuries, the Bruins were thought to be interested in acquiring some offense before the recent trade deadline.

    They didn't. The team will need to make up for that to continue having success.

Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller

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    The Sabres haven't lost in regulation since offensive powerhouse Philadelphia beat them 7-2 on February 16th.

    The team is powering their way to the playoffs, and they sit just two points out thanks in large part to the work of Ryan Miller.

    Last week, Miller won all three of his starts and notched two shutouts. He's stopped 114 shots over the three games.

    He is carrying the Sabres. If he keeps up the play, Buffalo's season could get a little longer.

Calgary Flames: Five-on-Five Play

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    The Flames have an average power play despite a poor offense. Their penalty kill is a quality unit.

    The team that is close to the final spot in the hunt for the playoffs needs to improve their five-on-five play.

    With a goals-for/goals-against ratio of 0.86, the Flames rank 26th in the NHL. Their offense cannot rely on the power play if they wish to make the playoffs.

Carolina Hurricanes: Bryan Allen

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    The Hurricanes re-signed both upcoming free agents Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu instead of trading them at the deadline.

    On deadline day, Carolina made it clear that Bryan Allen would not be moved.

    So, the team clearly intends to keep the defenseman after this summer. Otherwise the non-playoff bound team would have traded him.

    Their focus needs to be on re-signing Allen.

Chicago Blackhawks: Goaltending

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    The Blackhawks' goaltending has not been stellar all season long, but recently Corey Crawford has had it tough.

    The goalie was pulled in two consecutive games, and benched in favor of Ray Emery, who started the next two.

    Whether it be Emery or Crawford, Chicago needs a stable goaltender heading into the playoffs.

Colorado Avalanche: Semyon Varlamov

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    For a while, it was not looking as if Varlamov was worth the first and second-round draft picks Colorado gave up for him.

    He was not used for a majority of January, but has been hot lately. Since giving up five goals to Winnipeg on February 19, the goalie has won three of four games.

    He gave up four total goals in those games and made 113 saves.

    If Varlamov can continue to be a useful goaltender, the Avalanche will have a stronger chance of making the playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Nail Yakupov

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    They had better hope their poor play at least results in drafting first overall in the entry draft.

Dallas Stars: Beating the Teams in Their Division

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    Only three points separate the top and fourth place teams in the Pacific Division.

    Dallas is second and will need to fight to keep their spot in the playoffs.

    A flaw with the team is their performance against those Pacific Division teams.

    They are 1-3 against the Coyotes, the only win coming in a shootout.

    They went 3-3 against Los Angeles, but only one of those wins was in regulation and two of the losses were shutouts. They're 0-2 against the Sharks.

    Dallas has one more meeting with Phoenix and three more against San Jose. They will need to do well against those playoff-contending teams.

Detroit Red Wings: Road Wins

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    Detroit is an impressive 27-6 at home this season, but a lackluster 16-17 on the road.

Edmonton Oilers: Developing Devan Dubnyk

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    The Edmonton Oilers have an offense stacked with young offensive players any team would covet, such as Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, in addition to two potential superstars in Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

    They are likely to finish in the bottom-four of the NHL, giving them a shot at drafting one of the top young defensive prospects, such as Ryan Murray, Matthew Dumba, Morgan Rielly or Jacob Trouba.

    With a few potential stars on each end, the team needs a goaltender for their future.

    If that goalie is Devan Dubnyk, the 25-year-old needs to prove himself a capable starter down the stretch.

    Earlier this season, he put together three consecutive wins against Colorado, Chicago and Detroit while facing a total of 119 shots. He later shutout the NHL's best offense, the Philadelphia Flyers.

    He certainly has the potential; the next step is to prove himself reliable for the future.

Florida Panthers: Secondary Scoring

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    The Panthers' top line of Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss has scored more than one-third of Florida's goals this season.

    All three players are all on career-highs in points, but the team should not be relying on three forwards to carry them in the playoffs.

    The fourth-highest scoring forward on the Panthers is Shawn Matthias, who has 24 points. That's barely half of Weiss' output, who is third with 47.

Los Angeles Kings: Jeff Carter and the Offense

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    The biggest deadline acquisition this season belongs to the Los Angeles Kings, who picked up former 46-goal scorer Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Los Angeles added much-needed offense to a playoff-contending team that was last in the NHL in goals scored.

    Carter will need to provide the offense expected of him.

Minnesota Wild: Matt Hackett's Development

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    With Niklas Backstrom out 2-4 weeks with a groin injury, the 21-year-old Hackett has an opportunity to play at the NHL level and potentially earn himself a job behind Backstrom next season.

    The Wild are not playoff-bound, so the final stretch is not a risky time to be utilizing the inexperienced goalie.

Montreal Canadiens: Andrei Markov's Health

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    Markov has not played in an NHL game since 2010 due to a plethora of knee issues.

    When healthy, Markov is a good puck-moving defenseman who can create a lot of points.

    With the Canadiens' season derailed, their focus should be on the future. They would love to see Markov's return to the NHL go without any further setbacks.

    He was recently cleared for light contact drills.

Nashville Predators: Team Chemistry

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    The Predators were the biggest winners at the trade deadline, picking up forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad, plus defenseman Hal Gill.

    With big-time defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter facing free agency this summer, Nashville has made it clear that they're going for it before they may lose one of the two.

    The pieces they picked up are certainly helpful players, and the only question is whether the new additions can gel with the current team to help the Predators keep winning.

New Jersey Devils: Martin Brodeur

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    After losing a bunch of playing time to Johan Hedberg earlier in the season, the legendary Martin Brodeur is back at work again.

    Brodeur played well through most of February and the Devils won eight of nine games.

    He struggled towards the end and New Jersey went on a five game losing streak.

    His play is clearly intertwined with the success of this team.

New York Islanders: Figuring out Their Goaltending Situation

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    The Islanders have a peculiar situation with their goalies.

    With the team much closer to last place than eighth place, the future should be the focus.

    Often-injured Rick DiPietro is signed through the end of the 3023-3024 season or so, and has never really shown why he was drafted first overall.

    Evgeni Nabokov could be a better option, but does not have a contract and will be 37 years old next season.

    Then there's 26-year-old Al Montoya, an upcoming free agent who is also unproven.

    The team is in contract negotiations with Nabokov. As those talks continue, the Islanders will have to consider just who their guy is in net when offering the money.

New York Rangers: Staying Healthy

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    The Rangers are the top team in the Eastern Conference.

    Discounting the shootout, the Philadelphia Flyers are the second-best team in the east. New York has yet to lose against them this season.

    Additionally, the Rangers haven't lost against the Boston Bruins, the second place team in the conference.

    It seems as though the only thing that can stop them is themselves.

    John Tortorella demands that the Rangers block a lot of shots, which a type of play that can easily lead to injuries.

Ottawa Senators: Craig Anderson

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    Craig Anderson's mysterious finger injury has the Senators without their starting goaltender, leaving prospect Robin Lehner in net with Alex Auld as a backup.

    Are the 7th-place Senators going to the playoffs on the back of a 20-year-old, or will Anderson be able to return and play effectively?

Philadelphia Flyers: Ilya Bryzgalov

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    The Flyers' netminder has been picking up his game immensely lately, showing signs of why the team agreed to pay him a total of $51 million over nine years.

    Bryzgalov had his best performance of the season in a 1-0 shutout of the Washington Capitals earlier this week.

    He's been strong lately after a very shaky start. If he continues this quality play, the Flyers don't have much to worry about going into the playoffs.

Phoenix Coyotes: Overcoming Early Defecits

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    When the Phoenix Coyotes score first, they've won 26 of 35 games.

    When they give up the first goal, they're 7-24.

    If they can either come out strong every game or find the will to come back, their chances of succeeding in the playoffs will increase.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby

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    Evgeni Malkin is likely going to win the NHL's Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP for helping the Pittsburgh Penguins maintain one of the Eastern Conference's best records this season.

    The team has been without their best point producer for most of the season. The Penguins are still a contending team without Crosby, but if he comes back they will be incredibly dangerous.

San Jose Sharks: Consistently Playing to Abilities

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    The Sharks actually have a few areas that could be fixed: Antti Niemi's consistency, plus the ability to win when giving up the first goal.

    Ryane Clowe exemplifies the Sharks' struggles. When he's on his game, Clowe stands with Milan Lucic and Wayne Simmonds as one of the best old-school type power-forwards in the NHL. When he's not, he contributes at a 45 points-per-season pace as a top-six forward.

    Overall, the Sharks need to pull their game together every night and utilize the skills their team has.

St. Louis Blues: Staying Healthy

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    Surprisingly, The Blues are one of the NHL's top teams this season, although they've been hampered by some key injuries.

    The most notable is Alex Steen, who has one of the team's top point-per-game totals, has not played since December 27th.

    Forwards Matt D'Agostini, Jamie Langenbrunner and defenseman Kris Russell are also out.

    The Blues have shown the ability to win this season despite lacking a dominant scorer, but will need to keep their team intact for the physical second season.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Defense

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    The Lightning are still in the race for the final playoff spot in the east.

    Tampa Bay has given up the most goals in the NHL, but having a healthy Victor Hedman and Marc-Andre Bergeron would help change that statistic.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Randy Carlyle

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    According to General Manager Brian Burke, the team's new head coach is the key to their success.

    Fans chanted "Fire Wilson" at a recent loss, referring to then-head coach Ron Wilson, who Burke said the team was not paying attention or responding to on the ice.

    Burke said of hiring Randy Carlyle, "we've got a guy behind the wheel that can get us where we need to go."

Vancouver Canucks: Team Character

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    Like the Coyotes, Vancouver has trouble winning if they do not score the first goal.

    They have the fourth-best winning percentage in the NHL when scoring first, but the seventh-worst when giving up the first goal.

    Last year's failure to win the Stanley Cup displayed two clear issues with Vancouver: clutch goaltending and team toughness.

    Roberto Luongo could not pull it together when it mattered, and the soft Canucks could not physically handle the tougher Boston Bruins.

    Perhaps the team could consider using Cory Schneider this year if Luongo shows signs of not being able to come through.

    The acquisition of Zach Kassian will help the team's toughness, but they still lack it as a team.

    The team has the talent to succeed, but they need to put it all together in a manner that will bring them a cup.

Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin

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    The Capitals are tied for third in the east for the highest total of regulation-plus-overtime wins. (Essentially, a measurement of how good a team is without shootout results).

    They play well as a team and are in the hunt for the east's final playoff spot.

    Imagine how much better they would be if Alex Ovechkin was scoring at the level he should be. Ovi is on pace for 40 percent less points this season than his previous career average.

Winnipeg Jets: Winning on the Road

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    The Jets have a good home record; only the Rangers have more wins at home in the Eastern Conference.

    This is no surprise; the city waited 15 years for NHL hockey to return to Winnipeg. They show their support.

    On the road, the importance of that home ice advantage becomes clear as the Jets have lost 21 of 32 road games. Only three teams in the NHL have fewer wins away from their home arena.

    If Winnipeg makes the playoffs, they will not have home ice advantage. They will need to win on the road in the playoffs.


    B/R Featured Columnist Jason Sapunka covers the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers.