Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky
(NOTE: Stats from games ending Thursday March 31st.)
As the countdown begins to the end of the regular season, it's time to take a look at who is peaking heading into hockey's next stage. Some can be found on clubs fighting to get in or keep others out, while others shine with the reality they'll be doing something other than hockey by mid-April. Whether they're primed for the postseason or ready for some rust and relaxation, many skaters still have that drive to excel and can take advantage of a situation or a less motivated opponent.
Don't think of this column as a playoff preview, as there will be a comprehensive review before the first round. This should only serve as the appetizer, a primer to whet the senses for the upcoming three months. Naturally, none of the superstars or players owned in most leagues will be listed since they're known commodities. And no more than one player per lineup. As well, whoever was mentioned in the last column with respect to next year's risers will also be omitted to avoid repetition.
So while we still have your waning attention, take a look at those who seem to be boosting their effort recently. Great for those NHL clubs still in it; not so much for the non-contenders who would've liked seeing this earlier:
Erik Cole/Tuomo Ruutu, F, Carolina
Every poolie should know by now how much Cole loves Carolina. Take him out of the state and watch his production plummet (27 points in 63 contests). OK, so that was only one season with Edmonton but one could clearly see how homesick he was feeling. Since his return to the site of his only Cup victory, Cole (six in his last six) has once again teamed with Eric Staal to form a deadly duo. Among the Hurricanes' other weapons is Ruutu, who shouldn't be mistaken for older brother Jarkko. The Finn never did much before arriving on the Southeast coast, but Ruutu has built a fine resume in three seasons. His latest hot streak (also at six in six) has helped Carolina edge closer to a playoff berth.
Ray Emery, G, Anaheim
If you haven't been following NHL news over the last month, then you've missed a lot. A bunch of teams have made awesome runs, although most will come up short. That Sidney Crosby guy still hasn't returned from his New Years' slumber. And Ray Emery has dominated in net since Jonas Hiller (vertigo) went down. Yes, the same Emery who showed up to practice on a snowmobile and got into a scuffle with his KHL team trainer. The former Senator and Flyer has looked mighty as a Duck (6-0, 1.90 GAA, .935 SV%), which bodes well should Anaheim reach the playoffs since Hiller's condition may not allow him to play again this season.
Torrey Mitchell, F, San Jose
With the bulk of the forward attention reserved for The Big Four (and a bit of rookie Logan Couture), it's easy to miss other notable accomplishments. Although Mitchell barely receives any power-play time, he still contributes where it matters (four goals in eight). Even though his spot alongside a big name isn't guaranteed, Mitchell's willingness to improve and give it his all should keep him in the black. And if the Sharks finally want to reach the Final, they'll need a balanced effort throughout the squad.
Kevin Shattenkirk, D, St. Louis
Blues fans thought management had gone bonkers when they shipped projected captain Erik Johnson to Colorado for Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart. It's been over a month since the trade went down, but nobody in St. Louis has been complaining. The team knew they were foregoing Johnson's excellent overall ability, but they also realized the two new acquisitions could provide significant potential. And neither has disappointed, as both are currently riding five-game point streaks. At 22, Shattenkirk should continue to build a well-rounded game and join Alex Pietrangelo in their future domination of the league.
Marc Staal, D, NY Rangers
Bryan McCabe and Dan Girardi are expected to carry the defenseman scoring load, but Staal has shown flashes of usefulness in the opposing end (four assists in six). Never known to be a major offensive threat, but his reliability keeps him high on the depth chart and the shift count. With the Rangers battling for the 7th/8th spot, Staal has been offered an expanded PP role â€“ something he hasn't handled since his junior days.
Blake Wheeler, F, Atlanta
The Thrashers haven't experienced postseason action since 2007 but at least they possess several key tools to ensure future success. One of the newest pieces is Wheeler, who first got his break after being forgotten by Phoenix following three years in the NCAA. Boston didn't really like his decline from a 45-point rookie season, but Atlanta obviously saw something special in the 24-year old winger. In 17 games with his new club, Wheeler has notched 13 points and looks to be a natural in the Thrashers' high-speed, high-power attack.
(Honorable mention: Matt Carle/Andrej Meszaros, D, Philadelphia; Sergei Kostitsyn, F, Nashville; Alec Martinez, D, Los Angeles; Dominic Moore, F, Tampa Bay; Jason Pominville/Drew Stafford, F, Buffalo; James Reimer, G, Toronto)
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).