Atlantic: Five key players for the stretch run

By Ian Altenbaugh

Photo: Despite his age, New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur is still very much a part of his team’s chances at playoff success (courtesy of

Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMI)

With four teams in the Atlantic Division seemingly bound for the playoffs, there are countless players who will be depended on by their team for the stretch run. Below are five players in the division whose performances will be of particular importance to whatever success or failure their team has over the next month.

Martin Brodeur, G, New Jersey Devils

Though the Devils possess two of the most skilled forwards in the NHL in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, both of whom are having solid seasons, no player is more important to New Jersey’s playoff hopes, and any success that may follow, than Martin Brodeur. His performance in February was particularly eye-catching, and among the main reasons the Devils are currently in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference. In his past 11 games, Brodeur has managed a goals-against average of 1.90 and a .924 save percentage. That level of performance will have to continue if the Devils hope to nail down the seventh seed in the East.

Jordan Staal, C, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have picked up 26 of their 37 wins with Jordan Staal in the lineup, so there is no question that when healthy, he gives the team a better chance of winning. Since returning from injury on February 11th, the Penguins have averaged 4.34 goals per game and are 7-2. Staal’s importance to the team is two-fold. He provides an excellent secondary scoring threat – Staal has six goals and five assists in his last nine games to prove that – but just as importantly he draws away some of the defensive attention that would normally be focused solely on star center Evgeni Malkin. Since Staal returned in mid February, Malkin has eight goals and nine assists.

Brad Richards, C, New York Rangers

Averaging the most minutes on one of the worst power plays in the league, Brad Richards will have to increase his offensive production on the man-advantage if the Blueshirts hope to maintain their firm grasp of the top playoff seed in the East. Through 61 games, Richards has only three power play goals and 12 helpers, well off the pace from the seven goals and 22 assists he managed on the power play last year, let alone the 13 goals and 27 assists he posted in 2009-10. A lackluster
power play isn’t the end of the world for a team, particularly for one as good as the Rangers. But a power play unit operating at peak efficiency, however, can turn a squad that was positioned to make noise in the playoffs into a Stanley Cup favorite.

Ilya Bryzgalov, G, Philadelphia Flyers

Bryzgalov, and to a lesser extent young backup Sergei Bobrovsky, are the two most important players on the Flyers roster headed into the stretch run. Possessing the most explosive offense in the NHL for most of the season, the Flyers would be positioned far higher in the standings if not for the fact that they have allowed among the most goals in the entire league. Losing Chris Pronger only 13 games into the season surely didn’t help the team’s goals-against average, but inconsistent
goaltending from Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky has only exasperated the matter. The Flyers brought in Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina around the trade deadline to shore up their defense, so there won’t be much excuse if the team continues to allow an excessive number of goals.

Kris Letang, D, Pittsburgh Penguins

While the Penguins can point to many players on their team for the success they have had this season, center Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to name the two most prominent, no player on the Penguins roster plays more time in more situations than Kris Letang. Averaging over 25 minutes a game, Letang has been the Penguins leader on defense this season and one of the primary reasons the team has had immense success transitioning up ice and on the man-advantage. So it had to be disheartening for the members of the Penguins organization and fans alike to see Letang suffer what looked like his second concussion in three months last night. The Penguins have the defensive personnel to adjust successfully to the loss of Letang, as they did earlier in the season. But if he is out for an extended period of time, they will likely struggle down the stretch run and through the playoffs.

Atlantic Division Notes

New Jersey Devils: Coming off a three-game losing streak, the Devils will have a giant opportunity to boost their position in the standings when they visit the Washington Capitals on Friday. It will be the third of a four-game road trip that began February 27th.

Pittsburgh Penguins:
The Penguins lost another key contributor to their powerplay last night against Dallas when Steve Sullivan left the game in the third period and didn’t return. It remains to be seen if either he or defenseman Kris Letang will be able to suit up for the Penguins when they visit the Colorado Avalanche on this Saturday.

New York Rangers:
Rookie Carl Hagelin will look to extend his two-game, four-point streak tonight when the Rangers visit the Carolina Hurricanes. It’ll be the second time Hagelin has played the Hurricanes this season, the previous time on December 1st where he registered an assist through 11:31 minutes of play.

New York Islanders:
The Islanders will visit the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at 7pm EST. The Isles have had a great deal of success against the Flyers this season, particularly in Philadelphia where they have are 2-0 on the season, and 2-1-1 in the division series.

Philadelphia Flyers:
With a point against the Islanders tonight, defenseman Kimmo Timonen will have reached the 500-point mark.

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