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Auston Matthews, Steven Stamkos and other key players who can impact the NHL play-off race

With the National Hockey League season coming down to the wire, The National’s Rob McKenzie notes several key players who could make a difference in the play-off race and in the postseason itself.


Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

This is the big one.

The Tampa superstar took part in a full practice on Friday. It was the first time he had done so since having knee surgery on November 17. The Lightning scuffled without him yet have kept themselves at least on the fringe of the play-off race. Now, with three other Lightning centres battling injury, the sooner Stamkos can return the better.

If the Lightning make the play-offs and Stamkos is playing, they will immediately rank as the scariest of the low seeds in the postseason.


David Desharnais, Edmonton Oilers

And this is the little one.

Desharnais is 5-foot-7 and 171 pounds. If a man that small is in the NHL, it’s because he’s fast and works his tail off. He had strong moments for Montreal in the 2014 play-offs but had fallen out of favour in the city. When he was traded to Edmonton on February 28 for the young defenceman Brandon Davidson, the question wasn’t why the Habs were giving up on Desharnais but why the Oilers didn’t want a longer look at Davidson.

But since moving west Desharnais has revived his career at age 30. He had points in four of his first seven games. He was pointless in Saturday’s win over Vancouver but forced Canucks goalie Richard Bachman to make a great save late in the third. Desharnais is showing chemistry on a line with Benoit Pouliot — or as their coach refers to the two of them, Davey and Pou. This extra scoring punch could help the Oilers win a play-off round.


Jake Allen, St Louis Blues

The Blues goalie was horrible around the middle of the season. There was a stretch where it felt like the team pulled him from the net every single game.

But guided by the team’s goalie coach, the great Martin Brodeur, Allen got his game back. He was sensational in Monday’s big-time 3-1 defeat of Los Angeles, a team who were chasing the Blues for a wild-card spot. He stopped all 21 shots he faced in the second period to keep St Louis in the match.

And perhaps it is a result of the coaching change that replaced Ken Hitchcock with Mike Yeo, but when you watch a Blues game, they seem to be having more fun these days. From being outside the play-off picture they have climbed into third place in the Central Division — which would give them a first-round matchup against slumping Minnesota rather than Chicago or San Jose.


Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs

If Matthews can get Toronto into the play-offs he will win the league’s rookie of the year vote in a runaway over Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine.

Matthews leads all Toronto forwards in ice time, goals, assists and points. But the league’s 82-game season can wear down rookies and Matthews didn’t get a point during Toronto’s first seven games in March. He finally broke the skid with his team’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to red-hot Chicago. For the game Toronto wore special St Patrick’s Day uniforms – the Leafs were called the Toronto St Patricks from 1919 to 1927 before taking up their current name.

Matthews’s season began with a four-goal game in Ottawa. If it can end in the play-offs, Toronto fans will be happy all summer.


Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

His late-season surge had the unsung Sens competing not just for a play-off spot but for a division title — and put Karlsson in the conversation not just for best defenceman but for league MVP (but really, San Jose’s Brent Burns is the front-runner for both).

The Sens played Montreal, their rival for the division crown, twice on the weekend. They lost the first in overtime but it went that far only because Karlsson evened the score with about five minutes left. In all he had an incredible 33.17 of ice time. No other player was within seven minutes of him. In the rematch he was not so stellar, going minus-3, but he did again lead all players in ice time.

As Jonathan Willis wrote at sportsnet.ca, the Ottawa captain has changed his game this season. From being offensive-minded, he is now spending more time on the short-handed unit and less on the power play, and is on the ice for more shifts that begin in the defensive zone.

The weekend losses mean Ottawa blew its best shot at the division title. A first-round matchup against Boston, with the Sens having home-ice advantage, is probable.


Josh Ho-Sang, NY Islanders

He took his time getting to the big leagues but Josh Ho-Sang is arriving at just the right time for the Isles. A first-round draft pick in 2014, he made an all-time bonehead move by showing up late for his very first practice at the team’s 2015 training camp. That earned him a ticket home.

He finally hit the ice for the Islanders this March 2 and is giving the team a jolt of energy as they tussle with Toronto and Tampa for the final wild-card spot in the east. Ho-Sang was held pointless in his first three games but since then has six points in seven games and is getting significant ice time.

On the broadcast of Saturday’s game against Columbus, the long-time New York hockey writer Stan Fischler said of Ho-Sang: “The kid is fast, he’s exciting, you see he’s hustling all the time”. Even if he isn’t strong on defence, at least he takes some of the pressure off the Isles superstar John Tavares.


Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames

Tkachuk’s father Keith was a power forward who racked up 538 goals in an NHL career that ended in 2010. The son is a babyfaced killer (in the picture, he’s the one on the right). He leads all rookies in penalty minutes by a wide margin and is Calgary’s fifth-leading scorer.

Tkachuk is tough and pesky (and maybe a bit too chippy: he was suspended yesterday for two games for elbowing LA’s Drew Doughty in the head). He annoys other teams — he even grabbed Brent Burns’s stick during a game and threw it into the Calgary bench — which makes him a younger version of …


Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

His mid-career surge, which began last season and carried over into the World Cup of Hockey, has picked up speed this season. At age 28 the gritty wingman who destroyed Vancouver back in the 2011 Cup finals is right behind Sidney Crosby for the league goalscoring lead and is one point back in the points race. Marchand reached 35 goals with a third-period hat trick against Vancouver on Monday, then added No 36 in a Wednesday win that snapped Calgary’s 10-game victory streak. No 37 came alongside two assists in a loss at Edmonton the next night.

Expect to see Marchand and Karlsson battling for dominance in a first-round matchup.


Zach Parise, Minnesota Wild

On July 4, 2012, the Wild signed Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts for $98 million each. Suter has been super but Parise has become almost a forgotten man in Minnesota. He has never played a full season and topped out at 62 points in 2014/15. This season he is on pace for 39 points.

Parise has battled with back problems but is respected enough in hockey circles that he was named US team captain at the 2014 Olympics. This year Minnesota almost certainly will have home-ice advantage in the first round. At age 32 it could be Parise’s last good chance to provide the Wild with their money’s worth.


In summation

If the play-offs started today: The Eastern Conference matchups would be Washington-Toronto, Columbus-Pittsburgh, Montreal-New York Rangers and Ottawa-Boston.

The Western Conference would have Chicago-Nashville, Minnesota-St Louis, San Jose-Calgary and Edmonton-Anaheim.

Stand or fall: With eight wins in 10 games, Columbus are tied with Washington for points at 100, but the Caps rank higher because they have more wins in regulation time. Meanwhile Los Angeles’s 2-0 loss to Edmonton on Monday means the Kings lie six points outside the play-off picture with 10 games to go. Sportsclubstats.com says their chance at making the play-offs is down to 8.0 per cent.

Standouts: Through Monday, the league leaders are Connor McDavid in points at 82; Crosby in goals with 40; Suter and Washington’s Brooks Orpik in plus-minus at plus-33; Dustin Byfuglien in ice time at 27.26; and Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki in penalty minutes at 132. Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky leads all starting goaltenders with a 2.04 goals-against average; Braden Holtby has the most shutouts at eight.


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Updated: March 21, 2017 04:00 AM

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