Pacific: Five players to watch down the stretch

By Andrew Knoll

Photo: Dallas Stars winger Michael Ryder is a player that could have an impact during the stretch run to the NHL playoffs (

Warren Wimmer/Icon SMI)

Three words define the Pacific Division title, the final three playoff spots and seeding in the Western Conference: up for grabs. Five points separate four teams and even the last-place Ducks are making a run at the playoffs. They went from 20 points back to six. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Coyotes have risen from 12th in the conference to third to assume the division lead. Here is a quick look at some individual players who could make the difference in their teams’ hopes to reach the post-season and advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Lubomir Visnovsky, D, Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks’ top defenseman and power-play quarterback, Visnovsky’s early season injuries and struggles may have affected the Ducks even more than their publicized underachievers up front. Over the past two seasons, Visnovsky’s impact has been positive when he turned in a phenomenal campaign last year and when he has been in form this season. His 22 points in 50 games may be respectable but it is a far cry from the 68 points—including 31 on the power play—he registered last season. Anaheim will not win too many 1-0 games, so having a prolific defenseman to complement their top-six firepower could make a huge difference in the Ducks’ improbable playoff push. Visnovsky has not nicked the score sheet in nine games. It is no coincidence that the Ducks have averaged under two goals per contest in their last nine.

Michael Ryder, RW, Dallas Stars

Ryder has easily been the best value free-agent signing this season. He leads the Stars with 26 goals, including five game-winners. He scores goals in important moments and can break open a game single-handedly. Missing both Jamie Benn and Brenden Morrow, Ryder led the Stars on an unlikely four-game win streak. He had four points in the four wins and had just snapped a six-game point streak before the Stars’ surge started. He will need to continue to play like a star for Dallas to have a strong shot holding onto a playoff seed. Benn is back in the lineup but even with a completely healthy roster, the Stars lacked a bit of punch. Ryder has given them a boost from within, which looms even larger with the lack of a single addition at the trade deadline.

Jeff Carter, RW/C, Los Angeles Kings

Carter steps in with the expectation of generating offense and hopefully elevating the game of some struggling teammates. While Carter is in it for the long haul—the Kings now have him under contract for a decade beyond this season—his immediate contribution could be the difference between the Kings sinking or rising in the tightest division in a tight conference. Currently playing on a line with Mike Richards, who has slumped to the tune of 11 points in his last 32 games, the two friends could find a groove playing together. Dustin Brown has already begun to heat up offensively, a welcome sight to the low-octane Kings offense. For Carter’s part, he has yet to notch a point in three games as a King. Richards has also been held scoreless with a -1 rating and just two shots on goal since Carter’s arrival.

Keith Yandle, D, Phoenix Coyotes

Yandle gives the Coyotes another dimension and serious dynamism when he is on the top of his game. He has picked up his play during their nearly immaculate February, giving them a brilliant compliment to a strong top line and a respectable second line. He also quarterbacks a power play that could be the difference between the Coyotes being a complete contender or an hard-working also-ran. Yandle has chipped in six points in his last seven games. His plus-minus rating has gone from has risen from -4 to +7 during the Coyotes’ 12-game point streak, which has included 11 wins.

Brent Burns, Defense, San Jose Sharks

Burns has begun to deliver the type of impact on the blue line that the Sharks had hoped for, scoring 14 points in 14 games in February. After Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray had to shoulder heavy loads last season, San Jose made an aggressive trade for Burns and signed him to a lucrative extension. Now, with Murray on the shelf since February 17, Burns has been called upon to play more minutes and a more complete role than ever before with San Jose. The rangy defender has offensive skills, the capacity to key explosive breakouts and the ability to cover ground defensively.

Pacific Division Notes

Anaheim was shutout at home by the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday, marking the first time the Ducks lost consecutive games since Jan. 4 … San Jose’s Logan Couture and Dominic Moore remained day-to-day with lower-body injuries, neither played in the Sharks’ win over Philadelphia Tuesday and Moore had missed three previous games … Ryder’s fifth goal in seven games sent the Stars to the shootout, where they ultimately lost 4-3 to Pittsburgh Wednesday … The Toronto Globe and Mail’s survey of the average age and size of NHL teams had Los Angeles as the second-youngest and second-heaviest club in the league … Phoenix captain Shane Doan had four goals in three games but his streak was snapped against Vancouver. His Coyotes have three games against non-playoff opponents in their next four games.