The 10 players that will impact NHL playoff race in second half

NHL Playoffs
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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.

Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.

For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.

1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.

Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.

3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.

4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.

6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.

7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.

8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.

9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.

10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.