It might be a team game, even the ultimate team game, but every squad has a go-to-guy, the player who must perform up to expectations for good things to happen.
That's especially true this time of year as playoff teams look to go deep and playoff hopefuls look to their best player to get them into the postseason. For the teams that are playing out the string, maybe it's because that key player or person in management didn't do enough. This week's rankings, which appear every Tuesday, identify the most important person on each team.
1. San Jose Sharks (48-21-10, Previous: 1) – As much as Patrick Marleau is looking for postseason redemption, if Joe Thornton isn't San Jose's best player then the Sharks won't win the Stanley Cup. Thornton has shed most of the springtime criticism from his younger days with recent results, but there's room to improve on the last two playoffs: one goal, 11 points in 11 games last year and two goals, seven points in nine games in 2006.
2. Detroit Red Wings (52-20-7, Previous: 2) – It isn't as much a player as it is a position for Detroit, which will turn to either Dominik Hasek, Chris Osgood or both in the hopes of Cup No. 11. You get the feeling coach Mike Babcock would lean toward Hasek all things being equal – and they very much are looking at the regular-season statistics – but The Dominator has been in and out with injury and illness.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (46-26-8, Previous: 5) – High ankle sprains don't just go away, so expect Sidney Crosby to have good days and bad days in the postseason, and some days when he can't suit up. This puts the focus on fellow young dynamic forward Evgeni Malkin, who has been spectacular during Crosby's absence in the regular season.
4. Anaheim Ducks (45-27-8, Previous: 3) – Assuming the defense does its job to minimize shots and scoring chances against J.S. Giguere, the onus will be on the young shoulders of top-line center Ryan Getzlaf. Scoring goals has been a challenge for the defending champions this season, and it won't help if Corey Perry is out of the first round. Getzlaf has to do his part, if not more, to avoid an early exit.
5. Minnesota Wild (43-28-9, Previous: 8) – With the way you'd expect a Jacques Lemaire team to play – close to the vest and trying to win games 2-1 or 1-0 – it will be imperative for defenseman Brent Burns to do what he's done in the regular season (log ice time, shut down the opposition's top lines and contribute to the offense) especially with Kurtis Foster out and potentially other blue liners dinged up.
6. Montreal Canadiens (44-25-10, Previous: 4) – A week ago Carey Price would have been the man on the spot here, but the 20-year-old rookie goalie will be overshadowed by the medical reports on captain Saku Koivu, who may try to fit his broken foot into a skate and give it a go if he can manage the pain.
7. New York Rangers (41-27-11, Previous: 7) – Henrik Lundqvist hasn't been as good the second half of the season as he was in the first, and he needs to regain his early-season form to provide the Blueshirts a legitimate hope of coming out of the East. His 2.07 goals-against average last postseason provides Lundqvist with a benchmark this spring.
8. New Jersey Devils (43-28-7, Previous: 6) – It's a given Martin Brodeur is New Jersey's most pivotal figure, but let's assume the future Hall-of-Fame goalie will be on top of his game as he is most postseasons. That puts the burden of responsibility on leading scorer Zach Parise. He scored seven goals and 10 points in 11 playoff games last season, a good sign for this spring.
9. Dallas Stars (43-29-7, Previous: 11) – Marty Turco quieted critics with his fabulous first round against Vancouver last spring (three shutouts, 1.30 GAA, .952 save percentage), but he still lost. He and the Stars will likely draw a road assignment against the defending Stanley Cup champs to open this spring's festivities.
10. Ottawa Senators (42-29-8, Previous: 10) – It hardly seems fair because there's a lot of players not playing to their potential in front of him, but goalie Martin Gerber will have to be special if the Senators are to regain their confidence and build momentum for another long run.
11. Colorado Avalanche (42-31-7, Previous: 15) – Peter Forsberg could be the real wild card here. He's a playoff-style player, but his health will ultimately dictate how effective he can be. He was good in two of the five games for Nashville last spring. He'll need to be better and more available if the Avalanche hope to escape the first round in an ultra-competitive West race.
12. Boston Bruins (40-28-11, Previous: 17) – Let's see, Patrice Bergeron has been lost since the 10th game and published reports suggest Marc Savard has a broken back. Sometimes life in the NHL isn't fair. But the Bruins are in the playoff hunt. With so much offense missing, it's up to defenseman and captain Zdeno Chara to lead a defense-first effort. Just getting into the playoffs will be an accomplishment this season.
13. Philadelphia Flyers (40-28-11, Previous: 14) – Daniel Briere has drawn the ire of the locals for much of the season, but he's played pretty well down the stretch and he'll have to continue to make an impact if the Flyers are to be serious players in the wide open conference.
14. Carolina Hurricanes (42-31-6, Previous: 12) – Similar to the situation in Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes are missing their captain due to injury &ndash Rod Brind'Amour – but they won't be getting him back. And like Malkin with the Penguins, Eric Staal has stepped up big to fill the void. The 23-year-old can expect plenty of attention.
15. Calgary Flames (40-29-10, Previous: 9) – The master motivator Mike Keenan obviously won't lace 'em up, but the coy coach has been known to get into the heads of the opposition this time of the year. It will be interesting to watch what he comes up with, and you know he'll come up with something.
16. Washington Capitals (40-31-8, Previous: 16) – Alexander Ovechkin is going to get his shots and he's certainly going to score goals, but preventing them is what's ultimately going to allow Washington to sneak into the playoffs. That responsibility belongs to Cristobal Huet, the ex-Canadien goalie who has come over at the trade deadline and played the bulk of the late-season games instead of Olaf Kolzig.
17. Vancouver Canucks (39-30-10, Previous: 13) – Roberto Luongo is front and center. He doesn't have to worry about the birth of his first child since that happened last week. And he'll need all the concentration he can muster since its doubtful the Canucks will give him a lot of breathing room.
18. Nashville Predators (39-31-9, Previous: 22) – Chris Mason inherited the No. 1 goaltending job with the departure of Tomas Vokoun and he failed miserably. Somehow, this team has found a way to hang in, but Mason hasn't been part of the solution.
19. Buffalo Sabres (37-30-12, Previous: 18) – The departed talent is an old, if not valid excuse, but it's up to what's left to get the job done or suffer the consequences. That means Ryan Miller must provide the best goaltending he's produced all year, and there is room for him to step it up.
20. Edmonton Oilers (40-34-6, Previous: 19) – Edmonton in Boston West, and then some considering the Oilers' injury woes. Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Sheldon Souray and Raffi Torres are all out and yet the team has found a way to rally and hang in to the very end. They'll come up short, but it's no one's fault.
21. Chicago Blackhawks (38-33-8, Previous: 20) – Here's a team that needed some help from one of its veterans after it got so much from the youth. Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin should have been that guy, but he didn't stay healthy and he wasn't as good as he's been. Shame, because the kids worked their tails off.
22. Toronto Maple Leafs (36-33-10, Previous: 23) – Where to start? The finger of blame can be pointed in many directions, but this all stems from the top and that's Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment. The scary part: this is the group that has to put the pieces back together.
23. Columbus Blue Jackets (34-33-12, Previous: 25) – Close, but no cigar – and for an eighth straight season. While coach Ken Hitchcock introduced structure and started to make the younger players in the organization accountable and dependable pros, the guy who could have added more was Michael Peca. A veteran known for his grit, Peca was out of the lineup too much, and not all that affective when he was in it.
24. Phoenix Coyotes (37-36-6, Previous: 24) – Radim Vrbata had a career year, flying past his previous career-highs by scoring 27 goals and 55 points, but he hit the wall in the middle of February. When an upstart Phoenix team needed him most down the stretch, Vrbata had nothing to give but an ongoing 19-game goal-less drought.
25. Florida Panthers (36-34-9, Previous: 21) – In the end, Olli Jokinen didn't do enough. The player with the most number of games in his career (720) to have not appeared in a playoff game is a minus-20. There are others on the ice that contribute to plus-minus, but even Florida coach Jacques Martin called his captain out for not playing up to his abilities during the stretch run that once again came up short for the Panthers.
27. Atlanta Thrashers (33-39-8, Previous: 30) – Don Waddell made the right move when he fired Bob Hartley. Planting himself behind the bench was the wrong one. One person can't be both coach and general manager. When Waddell should have been out scouting, or at the World Junior Championships or working the phones, he was unsuccessfully trying to coach his team into the playoffs.
28. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-39-9, Previous: 29) – Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist weren't the answer in goal and the team used the trade deadline to try and rectify the situation. Only problem is that it was too late.
29. New York Islanders (34-37-8, Previous: 26) – Was the offense really this bad? An attack usually starts in a team's own end, or at least with defensemen who can trigger something with a good first pass or a system that doesn't allow for the puck to be cycled and possessed by the other team so long. That's where it starts, but you'd still think someone like Miroslav Satan could muster more than 15 goals and 40 points.
30. St. Louis Blues (31-35-12, Previous: 28) – Paul Kariya was an impact signing, but he didn't make nearly as much of an impact on the ice. His minus-9 neutralizes the runner-up team-leading 62 points he mustered. And 16 goals are nice, but the Blues needed much, much more.