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Neutral Zone Wrap: Things That Go Mump In The Night

Evan Berofsky

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Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky,

Staying healthy is important, but more so in wintertime. The dreaded sniffles linger in public places, while chain reaction bouts of coughing are always a nice treat. The key to survival seems to be staying out of NHL locker rooms where the league's latest trending disease, the mumps, has swooped in like a hungry dog on Thanksgiving.

Only a handful of players have been diagnosed with this infection, yet the panic has gone viral. Amid all the confusion and misinformation, one important question remains unanswered: Why are these NHLers kissing each other? And if they stopped doing so, wouldn't this epidemic be eradicated? (Fine, you got me. That was technically two questions.)

So while you ponder that, let's switch to the main event. You know, the moment you've been waiting for since October. May we present the final five teams up for review:

(NOTE: The next two installments will cover a selection of the biggest fantasy surprises and disappointments this season and their individual prognoses for 2015. And if these ideas don't materialize, expect the columns to be filled by a preview and synopsis of what presents I will receive, in order of size, preference, and viscosity.)

(Stats as of Monday December 15th)

Regardless of who's in net, the Sharks will find a way to win. The notion was raised in the preseason that Alex Stalock (2.12 GAA, .926 SV% in eight) would supplant Antti Niemi (2.42 GAA, .919 SV% in 22) as the #1, but that won't happen anytime soon. Tommy Wingels (11 points in nine games) may sound like a name stolen from a 1950s TV show, but he's been pure gold for his owners. Unpredictability has hurt Tomas Hertl (four in 10), but at least he can be of assistance. Without Matthew Nieto (ankle injury, sidelined another week), James Sheppard (four in eight) should be next in line for forward attention. And after the defection of Jason Demers, Justin Braun (four in five) has boosted his stock while Matt Irwin (two in 13, healthy scratch in many others) has left us wondering why.

The Rangers are New York's darlings once again and it isn't one player that garners the kudos. Derick Brassard (epidemic parotitis) will be missed but J.T. Miller (four in six, temporary top even-strength center) has sufficiently filled part of the void. Last year's five-star achiever, Mats Zuccarello (four in three), has recovered a bit of his magic. If only Chris Kreider (three in 13) could stay healthy and/or consistent. Kevin Hayes has already exceeded expectations so his recent activity (points in five straight before Sunday) can't be ignored. Besides Ryan McDonagh (five in seven since returning), there's no other Blueshirt blueliner to recommend. Dan Boyle could be considered if he would do anything (more than two in 11) or was 10 years younger, while Kevin Klein (four in six) would fall in the same category if he received more opportunities and didn't have to actively pursue acting roles.

With a building as loud as the MTS Centre, who would've thought Winnipeg could be such a road juggernaut (6-6-2 at home, 9-4-4 away)? Beyond the first line, Mathieu Perreault (six in seven, including three power-play points) is leading the way. Somehow his latest linemates, Mark Scheifele (a three-point effort surrounded by five zeroes) and Michael Frolik (four in seven), haven't taken full advantage. You'll never know which version of Evander Kane will hit the ice (the one who pots seven in nine or the guy who's acted reckless but still racked up 44 PIM) and that's a scary proposition. And in case you haven't paid attention, Adam Lowry (four in four) has crept his way into the conversation. Ondrej Pavelec (two wins in last nine) has reverted from his stellar opening and that has opened the door for Michael Hutchinson (1.81 GAA, .937 SV% in 11) to swipe starts from the veteran Czech netminder.

It isn't clearly obvious why Boston is struggling but we may be able to unearth a few clues. Exhibit A is Milan Lucic (four in 13), who isn't performing at an All-Star level but can still net a decent overall haul (25 PIM, 52 hits during the same stretch). Loui Eriksson (four in 10) could be characterized likewise, although he can't really be counted on for secondary stats. And most of the early love for Seth Griffith (scoreless in seven, sat out another three) has quickly been forgotten. Reilly Smith (five in four) is crawling his way back to relevance. And let's not forget the value Carl Soderberg (six in 10) continues to provide. Even with Zdeno Chara back in the fold, Dougie Hamilton (six in eight, cameos on the top PP) will continue to be asked for production.

No matter the geographical name, the Coyotes suck the same. One of the bright lights in the desert would be Antoine Vermette (seven in eight, three PPPs), who is on pace to post some of his best career numbers. Martin Hanzal (two in nine since a hat-trick) isn't so hot right now. Even without his latest ailment, Lauri Korpikoski (three in nine, minus-6) remains a tough sell. Is 21-year old wunderkind Tobias Rieder (seven in 20 after an AHL recall) the answer up front? Because we're certainly not touting Martin Erat (three in 13), who should never be used for consumption. Michael Stone (four in eight) possesses the talent to excel but requires more patience. And while Mike Smith's woes stick out like swollen cheeks (to the tune of 5-14-2, 3.35 GAA, .889 SV% in 22), it's a shame Devan Dubnyk (2.74 GAA, .917 SV in 11) isn't receiving more opportunities.