Northeast: Five players to watch for the stretch run

By John-Eric Iannicello

Photo: A healthy Jason Spezza will be a key for the Ottawa Senators as they fight for a division title with the Boston Bruins (courtesy of

Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

Among the Northeast Division teams still considered in the playoff picture, there are five key players that will prove pivotal for their respective teams down the stretch. Those five players include the following:

Patrice Bergeron, C, Boston Bruins

With the injuries to Rich Peverley and Nathan Horton, Bergeron will be looked upon to be a driving force for the Bruins as they head towards the playoffs. The 26-year-old leads the Bruins’ forwards in ice-time and is having a bounce back season offensively, with Bergeron on pace for around 70 points. Exceptional in the face-off dot at 57%, Bergeron provides great two-way ability for the Bruins, playing in every situation. He was also a main factor in the Bruins Stanley Cup Championship last season, finishing second in team playoff scoring with 20 points in 23 games.

Erik Karlsson, D, Ottawa Senators

It doesn’t look like Karlsson is about to slow down any time soon, which is great news for the Senators down the stretch. The team as a whole is soaring (7-2-1 in their last 10), but the dynamic ability of this Senator can prove to be a difference maker as they battle for the division lead. His offensive totals would be impressive by forward standards with 15 goals and 51 assists in 64 games, but as a defenseman it’s absurd. Leading the team in ice-time (averaging 25 minutes a night), there is no question that Karlsson is one of the Senators’ MVP’s.

Jonas Gustavsson/James Reimer, G, Toronto Maple Leafs

As slim as the chances may seem, the Maple Leafs are still in the playoff hunt. Going 1-8-1 in their last 10 games, the Maple Leafs as a team will have to bounce back in a hurry in order to challenge for a playoff spot, but much of the focus will be on the goaltending. Both Gustavsson and Reimer have failed to take a prominent step forward this season over an extended stretch, and hope is fading fast in Leaf Land. They’ll need to have an instant turnaround in their play in order to change the fortunes of this team.

Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins

After a breakout season during the Bruins Stanley Cup run, Marchand has continued his strong play in the 2011-12 season. The uber-pest can throw his opponents off their game in more ways than one, and can also stick it to the opposition on the score sheet. He’s already surpassed his career highs from last season and Marchand is on pace to score around 60 points and record 100 penalty minutes. He’s already proven last season how vital he can be to a team when it matters most; so expect more of the same from him as the regular season wraps up.

Jason Spezza, C, Ottawa Senators

Perhaps lost in the shadow of Karlsson’s success has been the resurgence of the 28-year-old Spezza. The star center has battled various injuries over the past two seasons, but is on pace to play over 80 games for the first time since the 2008-09 season. His clean bill of health in 2011-12 has resulted in an outstanding season for the Toronto native, as his 71 points leads the Senators in scoring. Spezza has proven to be a playoff performer in the past (46 points in 46 games), so his health in the last quarter of the season will be vital to the team’s success.

Northeast Division Notes

Boston Bruins: With a loss last night, the Bruins remain one point ahead of the Senators for top spot in the Northeast Division. The Bruins, however, have played four games less than the Senators. Tyler Seguin is two points away from 50 on the season.

Buffalo Sabres:
Cody Hodgson made his Sabres debut Wednesday night. The 22-year-old was a +1, had four shots on net and played 16 minutes. Ryan Miller continued his strong play, posting a shutout and turning aside 43 shots in the process. It was also Miller’s 20th win of the season.

Ottawa Senators:
Spezza scored his 71st point of the season on Tuesday night. The 2008-09 season was the last time Spezza recorded over 70 points in a season. Karlsson also scored his 15th goal of the season on Tuesday.

Montreal Canadiens:
Blake Geoffrion made his Canadiens debut on Tuesday in Tampa Bay. He was a +1 and had 2 hits. He’s chosen to wear #57 in honor of his grandfather, Bernie Geoffrion (#5) and great-grandfather Howie Morenz (#7). Also, Andrei Markov is inching towards being cleared for contact in practice.

Toronto Maple Leafs:
Joffrey Lupul scored his 25th goal of the season in last night’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The forward has four points in his last two games. Phil Kessel is two points away from eclipsing the 70 point mark for the first time in his career.