Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ten players to watch as the season winds down

With less than four weeks left in the regular season, which players are under the spotlight as we head down the home stretch?

Well, all of them. That’s kind of how the last few weeks of the season works, after all. If you’re an NHL player and nobody is paying any attention to what you’re doing these days, something has gone horribly wrong somewhere along the way.

But it’s also true that some players get more attention than others. So today, let’s take a look at 10 players from around the league who’ll be under an even brighter spotlight than usual over the season’s final weeks.

Brad Marchand

Marchand has always been a favourite in Boston. But his recent leap from "guy everyone else kind of just wants to see get punched" to legitimate NHL star has been an interesting development. And this year, he seems set on taking another step, joining the discussion as one of the league's best forwards, period.

I'm sure there are some Boston fans who'll claim to have seen this coming. But for the rest of us, Marchand's transformation from talented pest to dominant force has been a surprise. Last year's breakthrough 37-goal season felt like he'd reached his best-case. Then came the World Cup, when he looked every bit like an elite player and scored the winner. But hey, he had Sidney Crosby on his line, right? Let's see him do it for a full season.

Well, here we are. And with Marchand scoring at better than a point-per-game, he's somehow right in the mix for what would have to go down as one of history's most unexpected Art Ross wins. Heck, he might get the Rocket Richard, too. And that even has some especially feisty Bruins fans wanting to know if he's now in the Hart picture.

For now, let's worry about him getting the Bruins to the playoffs. But if he can lead them to home ice or maybe even the division title, who knows what comes next. We might be one strong finish away from seeing a very punchable face show up all over the annual NHL awards show.

Devan Dubnyk

We could fill this entire list to starting goaltenders, since no position comes under more scrutiny down the stretch. But we'll resist that urge, and limit ourselves to just Dubnyk, because he's shaping up to be an especially interesting case.

Call this one the tragedy of high expectations. Through the first half of the season, the Wild goaltender was running away with the Vezina, posting a .941 save percentage through the end of December. That put him on pace to challenge Tim Thomas's all-time record for goalies with at least 40 starts, which was set in 2010–11 and stands at .938.

But since then, Dubnyk has looked human. The Wild have lost each of his last four starts, and when we last saw him, he was getting pulled after allowing two goals on two shots in a key showdown against the Blackhawks.

To be clear, it's not like Dubnyk's numbers have plummeted. He's posted a .914 save percentage so far in March, which is only slightly down from the .917 he had in both January and February. Numbers like that, over the course of a full season, would be good enough to rank in the league's top dozen or so goaltenders. It would be above-average work.

But "above average" feels like a slump when you've set the bar as high as Dubnyk did in the season's first three months. And it changes the look of a team like the Wild, who'd emerged as the favourite in the Western Conference based largely on having some of the league's very best goaltending.

Maybe they still do. But if Dubnyk continues to look like he's merely very good instead of historically excellent, that changes the mix in the West, where the Blackhawks have already pulled ahead of the Wild for the top seed and the Sharks are right behind. That's a lot to put on one guy; probably too much, if we're being realistic. But since when have hockey fans ever been that?

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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