The 2015-16 NHL playoffs are just around the river bend. Games have been picking up in intensity over the last few weeks as postseason-bound squads make their final adjustments ahead of the Apr. 13 start date.
It’s around this time of year that big-game players start to step up. We could debate all day about the existence of a “clutch” gene, but there’s simply no denying that a handful of some of the NHL’s top players have elevated their play lately. Around the league there are several players finding their A-game just in time for the playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t seem like an overly dangerous team in the opening months of the regular season. Phil Kessel struggled to live up to the trade that brought him to Steel City initially, but has since found his footing. As good as Kessel has been, Sidney Crosby has been even better.
Through the month of October, No. 87 only had one goal and four assists to his name. Crosby picked it up a bit in November, but really started to find his form in early December. From Dec. 17 through Jan. 8, he scored a whopping 12 goals in nine games and hasn’t looked back since.
More recently, Crosby has been held pointless just once since notching three assists on Feb. 29. That’s a span of 19 contests in which Crosby has put up 24 points. He’s inserted himself into Hart Trophy talks with that run, and is now third in the league in points scored. More importantly, the Pittsburgh Penguins are among the hottest teams in the NHL and have seen their Stanley Cup championship odds increase dramatically despite missing Evgeni Malkin.
#Pens have gone from 20/1 odds to win Stanley Cup to 9/1 in the last 34 days in @BovadaLV's sports book. They are 14-3-0 since March 1.
— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) April 5, 2016
The man that Crosby is trying to catch for the second spot in the points race is Jamie Benn, and he’s finishing his 2015-16 campaign strong as well. The Dallas Stars are pushing into the playoffs without Tyler Seguin, but Benn has been up to the task of filling in the missing offense. Seguin last played on Mar. 17, and has since been on the shelf with gruesome Achilles tendon injury.
That’s a span of eight games, and Benn has scored five times while adding eight assists. He’s not going to catch Patrick Kane for the league lead in points, but that’s a stellar run for a player who is known as a strong finisher. Dallas is in a dogfight with the St. Louis Blues for the top seed in the Western Conference, and they’ve lost just two games since losing Seguin. That includes big wins over the Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings.
Benn — and an improved focus on defense — are to thank for that run.
The Penguins may be the hottest team in the NHL right now, but the Blues have been putting some outstanding efforts forward over their last 10 games. They are 7-3-0 in that stretch, and St. Louis was playing outstanding hockey before that. They earned shutouts in four consecutive contests towards the end of March, and it was Brian Elliott in net for three of them.
He’s won 10 straight starts and hasn’t lost in back-to-back starts since mid-November. Jake Allen is going to have a hard time hijacking the No. 1 job back from Elliott, who is now the league leader in both goals against average and save percentage.
Brian Elliott has won 10 straight decisions. #stlblues
— Lou Korac (@lkorac10) April 5, 2016
Elliott isn’t the only member of the Blues who has been doing some heavy lifting down the stretch though. Vladimir Tarasenko, a player St. Louis needs to be a game breaker come playoff time, has been dynamite. Since picking up an assist on Mar. 9, the 24-year-old has been held pointless just twice in 13 games. In that time span, Tarasenko has scored seven times and assisted on nine others.
The fifth player is a bit of an under-the-radar type. Jaromir Jagr has been getting a lot of deserved attention for a variety of reasons this season, but Aleksander Barkov has really looked strong as of late. He’s really put all the pieces of his game together over the last few months and has developed undeniable chemistry with Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau.
That trio has helped propel the Florida Panthers to the top of the Atlantic Division, where they have a great chance to shock the hockey world by fighting off the second-place Tampa Bay Lightning. Barkov is doing his part to make this a reality. He played arguably his most complete game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens on Apr. 2, a four-point effort for the forward, and he has 10 points in his last six games.
If the Panthers are going to continue to surprise people this season, Barkov will have to continue to pile on the points during his first ever postseason appearance.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com and are accurate through games played on April 4.