Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth has been a big reason for his team’s recent resurgence (courtesy of Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)
It’s crunch time in the NHL. Wth the trade deadline past and less than a quarter of the season remaining, it’s time for the league’s better teams — and players — to emerge and rise to the top. With the three-way battle for the Southeast Division at a fever pitch, two players carried their team at crucial moments. A third is having a revival after a brutal start to the 2011-12 season.
First Star: Michal Neuvirth, G, Washington Capitals — A week ago, the Capitals looked like a lost cause. Losses were piling up, coach-player squabbles were prevalent, and GM George McPhee didn’t make any deadline moves to either help or shake up his team. Enter Neuvirth. With Tomas Vokoun struggling, Neuvirth stepped in and won all three of the Capitals’ games the past week, finishing with a 1.66 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Expect Dale Hunter to continue to ride Neuvirth for as long as he and the team are effective.
Second Star: Evander Kane, LW, Winnipeg Jets — Kane extended his point streak to eight games, capping it off with a dominant performance Thursday in the Jets’ 7-0 thrashing of the Panthers. Kane set the tone in the pivotal division matchup by deflecting a pass on the forecheck and walking in on Florida goalie Jose Theodore to make the score 1-0. He added another goal and two assists for four points in the win, which moved the Jets back into eighth in the Eastern Conference and just two points behind the Panthers for the Southeast lead. Kane finished the week with two goals and four assists, and in the division’s biggest game of the year so far, his perfeormance speaks for itself.
Third Star: Eric Staal, C, Carolina Hurricanes — You could make a case that Staal has been the best player in the NHL for the past month. Despite playing with relative unknowns on his wings since Tuomo Ruutu went down with an injury, the Hurricanes’ captain has thrived. His current point streak is at 10 games, and he had a goal and five assists in three games, factoring in on six of Carolina’s eight goals for the week. Staal has also been seeing lots of ice, logging nearly 24 minutes a night the last week. And faceoffs — his Achilles’ heel from past seasons — have become a strength, with Staal winning 36 of 54 draws (66.7 percent) in those three games.
Southeast Division Notes
Florida Panthers: Faced with their biggest game in a year, the Panthers came out flat and were demolished Thursday by Winnipeg, 7-0. Neither Jose Theodore nor Scott Clemmensen had an answer for the Jets, and Florida couldn’t get any of their 33 shots past Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Coach Kevin Dineen will need to do major damage control — and quickly. Florida faces back-to-back home games against Nashville and Ottawa this weekend, followed by a road tilt in Philadelphia next Thursday.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning may be having second thoughts about trading Steve Downie — who has seven points in four games since heading to the Avalanche — but you can bet they are glad they held on to Teddy Purcell. Of late, Purcell, whose name also came up in deadline chatter, has been teamed with superstars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, and he has been producing. Purcell has three three-point performances in his last five games, and he has points in 11 of his last 12 outings. Tampa Bay is holding out hope that a hot streak — led by their top line — could lead to an unlikely push toward the playoffs.
Follow Cory Lavalette on Twitter at @corylav