Players Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on 2013-14 NHL Playoff Races

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

Players Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on 2013-14 NHL Playoff Races

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    About a quarter of the NHL season remains, and for all but a handful of teams, the playoff dream is still alive.

    The top three in each division automatically qualify for the postseason, and each conference gets two wild-card spots for those with the highest point totals regardless of division.

    For each of the competitors battling it out for the 16 spots, it will take a team effort to edge opponents. It will also take some great individual performances.

    Who is likely to shine down the stretch?

    Click ahead to see our candidates for clutch goaltending, timely offense and gritty leadership for those teams that need it most to separate themselves from the pack.

Johan Franzen (Detroit Red Wings)

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    Jana Chytilova/Getty Images

    The Mule is back, and the timing couldn't be better.

    Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg is essentially out for the remainder of the regular season after back surgery, Pavel Datsyuk has a bum knee and Stephen Weiss has yet to return from sports hernia surgery—not that he was performing up to expectations with two goals and four points in 26 games before the surgery.

    The Wings need someone to step up into a starring role here. Daniel Alfredsson is a candidate after a strong showing for Team Sweden in Sochi, where he scored two goals and contributed four points in six games to help claim the silver medal. But it's fellow Swede Johan Franzen who has put together a pair of impressive performances after sitting out the Olympics with concussion symptoms.

    Since rejoining the Red Wings this week, Franzen—dubbed the Mule by his peers for a tireless work ethic and strength—has been dominant. He scored three goals in a 6-1 thrashing of the Senators in Ottawa just one night after earning a pair of assists in a 2-1 overtime victory over the Canadiens in Montreal in his first game since Jan. 26 and second contest since first suffering the concussion on Dec. 15.

    More Mule equals more opportunity for the Wings to crack the top eight in the East.

Claude Giroux (Philadelphia Flyers)

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    It was a golf incident that kept Claude Giroux away from Team Canada's camp in August, but it was his play in the early part of the season that led to his omission when the team was named in January.

    His slow start to the year—which may have been impacted by that swing of a shattered golf club that led to finger surgery—was a thing of the past by the time Martin St. Louis was picked as a replacement for Steven Stamkos in February.

    But if that last snub was an insult, it should also be considered a blessing. The rest Giroux got for the stretch drive is meaningful, because the shifty 26-year-old will have to play like the elite forward he proved he could be during an incredible 93-point season in 2011-12.

    He's been doing a pretty good job of that the last couple of months. A five-game pointless drought kicked off his regular season, and Giroux scored just once in his first 18 games before a six-game point streak in November seemed to turn his season around.

    Since Dec. 4, he has 13 multipoint games and has netted 15 goals and 39 points in his past 33 contests.

    Special teams make a huge difference in earning critical points, and although the Flyers power play is in the top half of the league at a success rate 19.2 of percent, there is room for improvement—and the captain is the key to the Flyers' man advantage.

Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets)

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    When the calendar flipped to March a year ago, Sergei Bobrovsky went into Vezina mode.

    The Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender was incredible over the last couple of months of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season and was rewarded with the Vezina Trophy as the league's best netminder. His 18 wins and three overtime/shootout defeats were offset by just a handful of losses in regulation down the stretch.

    The bigger payoff of a playoff berth wasn't part of that package, though, as the Jackets fell just shy in the Western Conference thanks to a tiebreaker—games won in regulation or overtime—with the Minnesota Wild.

    This season, the 25-year-old Russian will be looking to secure that playoff spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to realignment.

    He's coming off a disappointing Olympic tournament with Team Russia but was hot heading into the break, winning 12 of his last 16 before the Sochi Games, with one of the four losses coming in overtime.

    Sitting five points out of a wild-card spot after Thursday night's action, the Blue Jackets are going to need Bobrovsky to be the team's MVP the rest of the way. If he falters and plays the way he did to start the season, they're dead in the frozen water.

Jonathan Bernier (Toronto Maple Leafs)

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    No team has allowed more shots against this season.

    That makes goaltenders extremely important. It doesn't matter whether you believe the Toronto Maple Leafs are good at keeping the quality of those shots down or not, every puck directed at the net—and even some that aren't—has a chance to go in.

    The Leafs have relied heavily on Jonathan Bernier and backup James Reimer this season. Bernier's save percentage of .926 is third best among goalies who have played at least 40 games this year. On the opposite end of the spectrum, his 2.61 goals-against average is among the worst GAA of those who have played that heavy of a workload. 

    That's as much a reflection on the porous defense in front of him as his own play—but it's his performance between the pipes that will be the difference between a chance to make amends for last season's playoff disappointment or the devastation of not making it in the first place.

Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals)

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    Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin felt the need to apologize to Russian hockey fans after he fell flat in Sochi.

    He doesn't want to have to do the same for Caps fans this spring.

    After a hugely disappointing Olympic tournament, at which he scored just one goal in five games, Ovechkin returned to North America with the Capitals needing some strong leadership to make up ground in the Eastern Conference playoff scramble.

    Marginally trailing both the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers in a wide-open Metropolitan Division behind the top-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals are in position to climb if its best player overcomes the crummy Olympic experience and sets his sights on the playoffs.

    Other factors like goaltending and secondary scoring will play a part in whether or not the Caps make the postseason, but the team finds inspiration from Ovechkin, who can single-handedly change the face of a game with a big goal.

    That was on display Thursday night in a game against the Florida Panthers. The Caps twice gave up two-goal leads before the captain put them ahead for good late in the third period to cap off a three-point night with his 41st of the season.

Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens)

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    It might be considered relatively easy for a strong goaltender to stop all but three shots in six games of a Winter Olympic tournament when playing behind the most dynamic and committed group of forwards and by far the best collection of defensemen.

    That was the case for Carey Price in Sochi, when he backstopped Team Canada to the gold medal. He made some great saves when called upon but wasn't peppered with scoring chances. Some would suggest he didn't earn his title as best goaltender at the Winter Games tournament.

    That same argument doesn't apply in Montreal, where his play with the Canadiens has them sitting second in the Atlantic Division. There have been some inconsistent moments—most notably a four-game stretch at the end of January that saw him drop four straight decisions while allowing 17 goals against.

    During a seven-game winning streak in late November and early December, Price allowed just a dozen goals against.

    We'll find out which way things go when he returns from an injury that was aggravated in Sochi and has delayed his return, but there's a reason Price was named Canada's starting goaltender in the first place, even with 2010 gold medallist Roberto Luongo joining him at the Games.

    Team Canada executives like what they saw in Price's nature as well as the skills he displayed on the ice. He's calm in the face of adversity, plays the puck well and gives his team confidence in front of him. That allows each player on the Habs roster to do his job and not worry about making mistakes.

    For the Canadiens, it's that confidence that is key to success down the stretch. They're not the most talented club in the conference, but the Habs have a nice mix of skill and structure that is dependent on strong goaltending as a starting point.

Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

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    Despite not even being invited to the orientation camp in August, Jamie Benn formed a third of arguably the most impressive line for Team Canada at the Sochi Games, playing alongside Anaheim Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

    He scored a highlight-reel goal—the only one in a 1-0 semifinal win over Team USA to guarantee Canada a medal—and opened a lot of eyes to just how talented he is.

    Upon his return to the NHL, Benn ho-humed his way to a goal and two assists in a win over the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night. Two of those points—including an amazing end-to-end rush that turned into his 23rd goal of the season—came while the Stars were shorthanded.

    Yeah, this kid captain is ready to lead his team to the playoffs.

    The 24-year-old has blossomed into one of the most impressive combinations of  size and speed in the league, and with his confidence on the rise after forcing his way onto Team Canada, Benn appears ready to be even better down the stretch for the Stars.

    The team is clinging to the last wild-card spot at the moment and will need more timely special teams performances like this week's to gain some separation.

Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks)

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    This week, Ryan Kesler's playoff-race impact takes an even bigger share of the spotlight.

    Namely because no one is sure if he'll be helping the Vancouver Canucks or another team improve its chances.

    Whether the rumours that the Vancouver Sun's Brad Ziemer touches on are true or not, Kesler automatically becomes the biggest commodity on the market, and the Canucks will field plenty of calls. He's the perfect second-line center who can shut down the best forwards in the league as well as score in his own right.

    The Canucks can't realistically afford to give him up without receiving someone (or a package) equally as productive and valuable as Kesler. And that includes the intangibles.

    The team is falling well short of expectations at the moment, and Kesler—not the Sedin Twins Henrik and Daniel—is the most influential member of the Canucks.

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild)

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    It seems odd to suggest that a 21-year-old Finn in his first full NHL season is more important than big-money men Zach Parise and Ryan Suter for the Minnesota Wild.

    But the dynamic playmaker who suited up beside living legend Teemu Selanne at the Sochi Games is the key player down the stretch.

    Why? The Wild have always struggled to break away from the identity of being a trap team. With young players like Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter providing the kind of secondary scoring necessary to win close games—or better yet, blow some wide open—the team may finally be able to do that.

    It's still a team dedicated to playing structurally sound defense, and yes, that means winning by maintaining a low goals-against average while producing marginal offense. But after a stellar Olympic tournament, Granlund might have the confidence to break out and translate that success into the NHL.

    His seven points in six Olympic games as the de facto top center in the absence of Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu impressed Selanne enough for him to predict a long and successful career for Granlund.

    He might be the game-breaker the Wild need to lock down that playoff spot.