Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky
So what does it feel like to be fighting for one of the few remaining playoff berths in your league? Imagine being chased by sharks. Who are carrying machine guns. And are faster than you. On land. Now imagine you're covered in fish food. And it's 100 degrees. Oh, and you're stuck in a cement block atop a layer of quicksand.
OK, fantasy hockey battles may not be as horrifying as the aforementioned images but you have to admit it can be frustrating, especially when you can't control what the real NHLers do. The pain, the agony, the hours of lost sleep. All over some guys who play some game with a stick and a rubber projectile on some frozen watered surface.
While you're trying to work your way in these last weeks, remember to have fun. After all, it's not really about the prestige of coming in first and taking the big prize. Ha, gotcha. Of course these components constitute the driving force of fantasy participation. So go out there and make us proud. Win one for the Wrap.
The Leafs may be on a roll (only two regulation defeats in 12 February contests), but could it be too late? James Reimer and his magic glove (enchanted with 10 wins, a 2.24 GAA, and a .931 SV%) have made people forget about Jonas Gustavsson and his tender heart. The panic button can officially be removed from the jersey of Phil Kessel (10 points in eight games, six of them goals). Tyler Bozak (a four-spot on Thursday) may finally be returning to form, but clearly needs Kessel to survive. With Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin getting their wish of leaving Toronto, the door has opened for other blueliners to strike. Brett Lebda (two points versus Montreal) has been inserted on the top power-play unit. Luke Schenn (three in 12) and Carl Gunnarsson (one in nine) may also earn an upgrade, although neither is really the scoring type.
The Islanders (on a 6-1-1 clip) also don't know when to quit, but no one has told this fact to their fans. Where was this effort the previous five years, Al Montoya (three victories, including a shutout in five appearances)? Michael Grabner (14 in 11, including nine goals) is the hottest thing since sliced Pop Tarts, so he surely can't be available. Blake Comeau (five in seven) still eats up the minutes and provides his piece. Rob Schremp (nothing in six) hasn't been nearly as hot as he used to be. While waiting for Mark Streit (out all 2010-11 after nasty preseason shoulder surgery) to reappear, Travis Hamonic (seven in eight with a whopping 62 PIM) and Jack Hillen (six in eight with 29 blocked shots) have taken advantage on the scoresheet.
Early promise and recent pressure could be hurting Atlanta. Whether or not the Thrashers are forced to move to Winnipeg, Quebec City, or Tokyo, they at least have to give the impression their on-ice product is sound. Andrew Ladd (five goals in four) is continuing to rack up the totals. New addition Blake Wheeler (an assist on one of Ladd's tallies) is already fitting in unfamiliar surroundings. Somebody has to push Niclas Bergfors harder (two in 10, minus-5, dwindling opportunities) or else he'll be forced out of town. Zach Bogosian (four in seven) has been rumored to be moved before the trade deadline, but at least he's trying. Ron Hainsey (two in five after one in 21) is still nowhere near earning his $22.5-million contract.
Never count out Antti Niemi - or the Sharks, for that matter. The Finnish phenom has started 17 straight and sports a matching impressive record (14-2-1 while stopping three shutouts). It's about time Devin Setoguchi (15 in 14 mainly alongside Joe Thornton) contributed regularly. Joe Pavelski (12 in 12) is still getting enough done on the third line, although the Wisconsin grad is fully immersed on the man-advantage (four PPPs). It would be nice if Ben Eager and Jamal Mayers could pick up more penalty minutes (at a combined 41 this month), since they're about as multi-dimensional as a stick figure. Owners are relieved Jason Demers (three in three) is back in the black. Ian White was brought over for his leadership, but a few points here and there (now standing with 11 of 'em) won't hurt.
Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop in Phoenix. Maybe it did Tuesday night thanks to Tampa's 8-3 shellacking, but there's no reason to believe the Coyotes will hit a significant slump. Their balance is the key, as can be seen through leading goal scorers Taylor Pyatt and Scottie Upshall (both with 16) and seven others with at least double-digits in this category. That includes Kyle Turris (five in eight, but a minus-3), who once again was recalled to fill in a supporting role. Lee Stempniak (one in 11) is back to his stagnant ways. Michal Rozsival (one in 13) can provide defensive depth, but that's about it. The Oliver Ekman-Larsson experiment (one in 14) will be better served next year. And it's nice to have David Schlemko (out a month with a concussion) back in uniform, but don't get too excited about his promising debut (a goal and an assist in almost 17 minutes).
Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).