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Neutral Zone Wrap: Follow the Leader

Evan Berofsky

Evan Berofsky

Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When heís not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble(TM). If you have anything to say about Evanís work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at eberofsky@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).

While many North American locales haven't yet felt winter's wrath, there is still a chill in the air. No matter if you're sunning it up in Southern California or enjoying the mild temperatures across most of the Midwest and Southern Ontario, the atmosphere surrounding the league's short-term future is once again becoming dark and cloudy.

The NHL and NHLPA have been quietly showing their distrust towards each other, most recently after the latter shot down the proposed realignment plan slated for next season. They said this and the other side said that, blah blah blah, we could be headed towards another strike lockout prolonged period without hockey.

While this scenario may suck, let's try to savor what we currently have on the ice and hope for the best. Cross your fingers and put some faith that both parties will eventually come to a calm and rational solution. After all, it took several years for the blue M&M to finally get along with all the other colors.

Oh, right, now to switch y'all to the relevant portion of this column: the fantasy goods. Five more teams to display their wares and allowing you to pick from them based on your requirements. Think of this as shopping, minus the long lines, travel, and inevitable disasters:

Even though the Rangers are leading the way out East, many of their players are not producing. Here's looking at you, Artem Anisimov (no points in 12 games). You too, Ruslan Fedotenko (two in 10). But carry on with your fine play, Brandon Dubinsky (eight in 10). And pass along the love to rookie Carl Hagelin (seven in 11). Welcome back, Marc Staal, who is off to a slow start (nothing in eight) but really never was much on the offensive end (peaked at 29 points last season). Michael del Zotto remains New York's best blueline fantasy asset, but the points need to come more often (one in eight). They have an interesting situation regarding Martin Biron (9-2, 1.87 GAA, .927 SV% with two shutouts), but don't think for a second he could ever pull a significant chunk of starts away from Henrik Lundqvist (similarly sparkling 20-9-4, 1.90 GAA, .937 SV% and four shutouts).

Meanwhile, in the league's other half, Chicago have continued their dominance. Even without Patrick Sharp (wrist injury, gone at least another two weeks), the Hawks are still scoring in bunches (22 goals in the last five). Guess you probably heard about Viktor Stalberg (six in five, including first career hat-trick) joining the first line, but don't expect to see him on the power-play. Dave Bolland (10 in nine, with four PPPs) is well on pace to threaten his career high (47), while Andrew Brunette (three in four) is chipping in when needed. Give it up for youngsters Andrew Shaw (six in eight since being recalled) and Jimmy Hayes (seven in 10 following his promotion), who seem to perfectly fit in whatever situation is needed. No worries about Corey Crawford, as his recent actions (2.11 GAA, .909 SV%, only three defeats in 11) have made everyone forget about Ray Emery (only two appearances in 2012).

A quiet surge in Anaheim (unbeaten in last seven during regulation), but not from the people you'd assume. A whole slew of forwards have pitched in to help the cause. This list includes such veterans as Saku Koivu (eight in seven, half of them goals) and Jason Blake (eight in eight since missing three months), a handy spare part in Niklas Hagman (four in seven), a recovering scorer like Andrew Cogliano (six in eight), and a fresh face provided by Nick Bonino (three in two). Francois Beauchemin (seven, plus-eight in six) may not have entirely supplanted Cam Fowler (three in 12) as the #2 D-man behind Lubomir Visnovsky, but the latest figures are telling a different story. And while the stats may look ugly at times, Jonas Hiller (riding three-game winning streak) still stands as the undisputed leader in net.

As predicted, Toronto are once again knee deep in trouble. No thanks to either Clarke MacArthur (zip in five) or Tim Connolly (one in five). Grab a hold on to Tyler Bozak (back from suspected shoulder problem) for another short-term run as top center. See if Mikhail Grabovski (seven in seven) is still available. And give Matthew Lombardi (three in 10) a break. Don't completely trust Cody Franson (five of his 13 have come on the man-advantage), although Carl Gunnarsson (five in eight) might be that extra defenseman to fill the void. This column would be remiss if we didn't mention the Leafs' goaltending battle between Jonas Gustavsson (six above-average starts since the New Year) and James Reimer (one shaky appearance since Jan. 1).

What to do in Pittsburgh when the troops are depleted and morale is low? Try to forget about all your injuries and get back to winning! Fine, so that hasn't gone to plan of late. But don't tell that to hard workers such as Tyler Kennedy (eight in 13, but only one in last eight), Steve Sullivan (five in 11, four of them PPPs), and Pascal Dupuis (three in 11, but 35 shots on goal). Forget what you thought you knew about Matt Cooke (one and only two PIM in 15). Kris Letang's return means Matt Niskanen (two in 11) will be bumped down the defensive pointmen chart to a lower power-play unit, while Paul Martin (four in nine) should still see significant ice time serving as a more consistent option.

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 eberofsky@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).