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Neutral Zone Wrap: Late Season Bloomers

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 or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).

In modern history, sports have served as an essential part in peoples' lives. All the memories we could recall from various events would be able to fill an entire existence but probably only cover 10% (at most) of everything we do. That's why it is important to cherish these moments in order to appreciate everything else.

While recent events have forced us to reevaluate our priorities, professional athletic events help us to express our emotions in a fairly healthy manner. There's no better support group than a crowd of 10 to 20,000 'friends' rooting for one of two teams and enjoying the spectacle of a live event. The sights and sounds truly make the atmosphere: the oohs, the aahs, the high-fives all around. One is at peace in the sporting realm.

And this is where the NHL comes in. With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, emotions are heightened. The stakes are high and the rewards could be significant. The key remains as to which clubs will be able to transfer this pressure into a playoff position and who will crumble at the first sign of trouble. If you can stand up to the pain and carry on, then you've got a good shot of surviving for the long run.

With the notion of perseverance in mind, let's take a look at a few players who have fought through hardships and should be able to carry this momentum to the postseason (should they qualify) and beyond. Maybe the coach held this individual back for weeks. Or perhaps an opportunity just opened up. When the chance presented itself, these folks hit the wall and then knocked it down. Will try not to repeat too many familiar names from this season's content but the temptation to include them may be too strong...:

Derick Brassard, F, NY Rangers

After years of waiting for him to blossom into a #1 center, it appears as though Brassard has settled into more of a supplementary role within the suddenly-potent-again Rangers offense. The sixth pick of the 2006 draft had been tabbed to act as Rick Nash's caddy in Columbus but plans didn't quite work out (never topped 47 points in a season, several injuries). And like his traveling teammate, Brassard isn't under pressure to carry his new team. If the preliminary stats mean anything (nine points in eight games, including four PPPs), then this Broadway experiment could be deemed a success. The question now remains about his long-term future, considering UFA-dom awaits next summer.

Steve Mason, G, Philadelphia

From Calder Trophy winner and Vezina finalist to waiver wire reject and the subject of every third goalie joke. Like Brassard, Mason's efforts deteriorated to the point where it became evident the solution was a one-way ticket out of Ohio. Some could claim no goalie can survive in Columbus, but ahem, look how Sergei Bobrovsky is singlehandedly saving the franchise. OK, maybe we shouldn't get too excited about Mason's first few starts (1.82 GAA, .941 SV% in four), but they're definitely promising. And with Ilya Bryzgalov seemingly ready to throw away his golden ticket, the kid has the opportunity to grab the top job in Philly and run with it.

Shawn Matthias, F, Florida

Some might remember Matthias suited up for Canada at the 2008 WJHC but many probably have forgotten Matthias was part of the 2007 trade that saw Todd Bertuzzi end up in Detroit. Or that he earned his NHL debut five years ago and yet his professional potential is still unrealized at the age of 25. By no means has Matthias been a lights-out scorer at any point in his career, as his size (6'4") has always complemented his skills. But with two of its main forwards (Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg) down for a while, the Mississauga man (with 14 goals) has been able to develop in Florida alongside rookie sensation Jonathan Huberdeau to form an unlikely solid combination.

Viktor Stalberg, F, Chicago

After taking the long road to the big show via the NCAA, Stalberg left early to sign a contract with Toronto and was expected to produce right away. While his lower-level duty earned him high praise (33 in 39 with the Toronto Marlies), the jump to the top tier didn't immediately work as planned. Perhaps the Leafs gave up early on the supine Swede when they shipped him to Chicago in June 2010. Since then, Stalberg's game has matured into a more complete package, one where he has been asked to get involved in more situations than just plain offense. The results have paid off (22 in 42 with a plus-17), netting modest gains for poolies who stuck with him.

Slava Voynov, D, Los Angeles

Since his 2008 introduction on the international stage, the hype for Voynov had grown to unmanageable proportions. Everyone knew the talent existed but it was relegated to the AHL for three full seasons. It only took multiple injuries on the Kings blueline to open the door for the slick skating Russian. And boy, look at him now (24 in 44, plus-14, eight PPPs). Scary to imagine how much more valuable Voynov will become when his deadly shot from the point becomes more accurate.

(Honorable mention: Josh Bailey, F, NY Islanders; Lars Eller, F, Montreal; Jannik Hansen, F, Vancouver; Jakub Kindl, D, Detroit; Jared Spurgeon, D, Minnesota)

Next week, we'll take a look at who to avoid heading into the next fantasy season. You may believe some skaters are worth keeping, but there are others who are just fooling you with their performances. And once those guilty parties are revealed, we can get down to the business of preparing for playoff pools.