The final stretch race of the 2013 regular season is on.
Two intense playoff races in both conferences will conclude this weekend, as 26 teams play Saturday before Ottawa and Boston close out the season Sunday evening.
Teams who have already fought and clawed for position over the past 45, 46 or 47 games must still elevate their execution to yet another level, finishing off the regular season with one desperate rush for the playoffs.
What could make the difference in each conference's bubble competition as this exhausting week wears down? It could all come down to just a few individual players—a few individual players who haven't been the game-changers they were expected to be this spring—finding their "A" game, at last, and pushing their clubs into a postseason spot.
On the coming slides, we point out and break down five potential stars, in particular, who must step up their game with the pressure on in the regular season's last days.
Ottawa Senators' current position: 7th
Prior to his mid-February injury, Craig Anderson was one of the early-season favorites for the Vezina Trophy.
Since missing 18 games with a sprained ankle, however, the 31-year-old goaltending veteran is just 3-4-0 and has posted a save percentage worse than .885 in all four losses.
He's recorded no more than 21 saves in three consecutive games and lost his two appearances, allowing the Ottawa Senators to slide back onto the Eastern Conference playoff bubble.
The Sens have three games remaining, more than any of the other teams around them in the standings, but that slate includes two intimidating road games in Washington and Boston. Anderson will need to steady his club down the stretch to finish off this largely impressive Sens season.
Thurs. at Washington Capitals (3rd)
Sat. vs. Philadelphia Flyers (12th)
Sun. at Boston Bruins (T-2nd)
Columbus Blue Jackets' current position: 9th
Since his selection fourth overall in 2010, Ryan Johansen has played 105 NHL games.
He's still yet to break out into the dynamic passer he was supposed to be, though, managing just 33 points and a minus-nine rating throughout his career so far.
The 6'3", 20-year-old center has only two points in his last five games, but, after picking up a critical game-winning goal Sunday in San Jose, the tide may be starting to change.
If the Columbus Blue Jackets want to leapfrog over the surging Red Wings and make a somewhat shocking playoff appearance in 2013, they'll need every one of their young, budding stars to play to maximum potential from here out—and Johansen's at the top of that list.
Thurs. at Dallas Stars (10th)
Sat. vs. Nashville Predators (T-13th)
Winnipeg Jets' current position: 9th
After losing a hard-fought 5-3 decision in Washington Tuesday, the Jets' playoff hopes are now in desperate straits—they'll need to win their one remaining game against already-clinched Montreal but also get two or three consecutive losses to end the regular season from either the Rangers or Senators, respectively.
Evander Kane, along with fellow team goal-scoring leaders Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler, have done a great job this season to keep the Jets' low-profile offense among the league's better half. Kane, the fourth overall pick from 2009, has tailed off lately, though, scoring on just one of 16 shots and recording a minus-four rating in his last five games.
Kane will need an explosive and potentially career-defining performance Thursday for Winnipeg to win against Montreal for the first time in three meetings and take the first step towards a postseason miracle.
Thurs. vs. Montreal Canadiens (T-2nd)
Detroit Red Wings' current position: 8th
For a while, the Detroit Red Wings were in grave danger of ending their 21-year streak and missing the playoffs.
They're still in danger of that. But not quite as much as before.
Two consecutive home wins over the Coyotes and Kings have pushed the Wings back into the top eight for the time being, and they lead Columbus by one point now with two games remaining. Detroit still has take advantage of their fairly easy schedule, though, and will probably need to pick up at least three more points to squeak in.
Blueliner Kyle Quincey, 27, could be the difference-maker on the Wings' fate. The supposed-offensive defenseman has just three points in 34 games and has seen his ice time decline greatly over the course of the year, falling from a season-high 24:03 on Feb. 28 to only 17:59 on Wednesday night. His Corsi numbers aren't great, either.
For almost $3.8 million annually and one more year left on his contract, Quincey needs to step up and regain his poise under the spotlight in Detroit's two final contests.
Thurs. vs. Nashville Predators (T-13th)
Sat. at Dallas Stars (10th)
Minnesota Wild's current position: 7th
Despite the blockbuster addition of Jason Pominville at the trade deadline, the Minnesota Wild have struggled greatly in April; they've won just four of their last 12 games to slide from (at one point) the Northwest Division lead to a testy playoff bubble position.
The Wild pulled off a crucial 2-1 win over Los Angeles Tuesday, conversely, to get in much better position. Perhaps one of the reasons was Devin Setoguchi's primary assist on the eventual game-winning goal, which was only the former 31-goal scorer's third point in this ongoing 12-game stretch.
Setoguchi's role has gradually decreased as his time in Minnesota has gone on, but two big games this weekend to secure the Wild's first postseason bid since 2008 might start to turn his career around. As Minnesota continues to seek more offensive playmaking—especially with Dany Heatley out for the year—the time has come for 26-year-old Setoguchi to prove his long-term worth.
Fri. vs. Edmonton Oilers (T-13th)
Sat. at Colorado Avalanche (15th)