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10 Key Players for NHL's Playoff Contenders

by Photo of Gil Santos

These players will play a huge role in determining who’s in and who’s out.

10 Key Players for NHL's Playoff Contenders

The Stanley Cup playoff race is shaping up to be a wild one. In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Washington Captials are in a four-way tie in points for the two wild card spots. Out West, the Minnesota Wild are looking pretty atop the wild card standings while the Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars, and the Vancouver Canucks are duking it out for the final playoff spot. In order to make the postseason, teams will need some important players to either step up or continue their recent production. Here are 10 key players that could determine their teams' playoff fates:

Eastern Conference

Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings - Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Jonathan Ericsson. Justin Abdelkader. Todd Bertuzzi. The laundry list of injuries to the Red Wings' key players goes on and on, yet they are in the thick of the playoff race. One of the main catalysts is the recent play of second-year winger Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist is the hottest forward in the league with six goals in four games last week, earning him 1st star of the week honors. The Red Wings went 3-0-1 in that span as they temporarily leaped over the Columbus Blue Jackets for the wild card. He has been one of the more consistent Red Wings' forwards since getting the call-up in November, but he has brought his game to whole new level. With the Red Wings' 22-season playoff streak hanging in the balance, they hope Nyquist can maintain his level of play to keep the streak intact. 

Nathan Horton, Columbus Blue Jackets - In hopes of adding another scoring threat, the Blue Jackets signed former Boston Bruin, Nathan Horton, to a huge seven-year, $37.1 million deal over the summer. However, the Blue Jackets have received very little production from their long-term investment thus far. After missing the first half of the season due to off-season shoulder surgery, Horton has just 4 goals and 12 assists in 31 games with the team. Horton is known to step up his game in the playoffs, but the Blue Jackets need to get there first. He will need bring some of that playoff magic if the Jackets want to make their second Stanley Cup playoff appearance in franchise history. 

Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maples Leafs - Despite giving up the most shots and the fourth most goals in the league, the Maple Leafs are still in playoff contention because they have a goalie that bails them out. Jonathan Bernier has been stellar in his first season as a Leaf, posting a 25-16-7 record with a 2.61 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. His value to the Leafs cannot be overstated and was made evident by their recent struggles after he suffered a groin injury that sidelined him for five games. The Leafs went winless in that stretch as James Reimer was not up to the task. With the defense not improving anytime soon, the Leafs will rely heavily on Bernier to keep pucks out of the net and get them into the playoffs. 

Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, Washington Capitals - The Capitals have lacked secondary scoring outside Alexander Ovechkin all-season, but perhaps they may have the problem solved with the rise of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. Both Brouwer and Ward recently eclipsed the 20-goal mark and seem to be playing their best hockey just in time for the playoff run. Ward is having a career year as he already surpassed his lifetime highs in points and goals. Brouwer is on pace to achieve those feats as well. The Capitals will need the duo to keep up their production as they are a team that will look to outgun an opponent because of their weak defense. 

Western Conference

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars - Despite having two superstars in the making with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, their inconsistent defense has the Stars on outside looking in. This is where goalie Kari Lehtonen can be a huge key for the Stars' playoff chances. Lehtonen is having solid season thus far for Dallas with a 27-17-10 record, 2.46 goals against average, and a .917 save percentage. However, the Finn will need to take his game to the next level. The Stars should have enough offense, but outstanding goaltending from Lehtonen can possibly bring them to their first postseason appearance since 2008.  

Thomas Greiss, Phoenix Coyotes - The Coyotes are a team that relies heavily on their defense and goaltending to win them games. With starting goaltender Mike Smith possibly out for two weeks, their playoff chances will ride on the play of the back-up, Thomas Greiss. Greiss passed his first test as the starter in a 3-2 victory over the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins as he stopped 23 of 25 shots. For the season, Greiss is 8-5-2 with a 2.35 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. The Coyotes hold the final wild card spot as they are three points ahead of the Stars.

Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov, Minnesota Wild - While the Wild sit comfortably in the first wild card spot, three points above Coyotes and the six points ahead of the Stars, they cannot afford to let up and still need to figure out their goaltending situation. The Wild have rotated the duo of Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov as of late and no one has yet to establish themselves as the starter. With Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, who were the goalies at the start, not returning anytime soon, the Wild will need one of Kuemper or Bryzglaov to step up an take the job. Once someone does that, they can confidently roll with one starter, secure their playoff spot, and be ready for the postseason. 

Alexandre Burrows, Vancouver Canucks - Even with all the drama that has surrounded head coach John Tortortella and his Canucks, they still have an outside shot of making the playoffs. It'll be a tall task for the Canucks as they sit six points behind the Coyotes and will still need to jump over the Stars, whom they trail by three points. Goals have been hard to come by for the Canucks, so they'll need someone to step to the forefront. That guy could be Alexandre Burrows. Burrows has struggled this season, going the first 35 games without a goal, but is starting to pick up his game. Since scoring his first goal in Winnipeg, Burrows has three tallies in his last three games. If Burrows can stay hot, then maybe the Canucks can score enough goals to stay in the playoff conversation. 

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