Puck Daddy - NHL

On Tuesday, Y! Sports Nick Cotsonika counted down the top storylines for the stretch run in the NHL, as teams shake off the All-Star Break fog and get back to the business at hand.

Today, we're looking at a dozen specific players that we think are the most fascinating to observe over the next two months; players that either are looking to reverse their fortunes from the first half or hold their team's destiny in their hands or whose acquisition by a playoff team could shift the balance of power as the postseason approaches.

Here are the 12 most fascinating players in the NHL stretch run:

Tim Thomas(notes), Boston Bruins

At some point, the hockey world will take a step back, stare at the stat sheet and let out a collective gasp at the masterpiece Thomas is composing for the Bruins. Through 37 games, he has a 1.82 GAA and a .945 save percentage. If these numbers hold, he'll have the lowest GAA since Miikka Kiprusoff(notes) in 2003-04 and the best save percentage ... ever. No, seriously: The stat gained prominence in 1983-84, and no goaltender since has posted a year-end save percentage over .940. History in the making?

Brad Richards(notes), Dallas Stars

Richards has 58 points in 51 games, and is on pace to set a new personal best in goals scored (he has 20; his best was 26 in 2003-04). He's the MVP of the Western Conference's most surprising team, and the catalyst for its second-leading scorer Loui Eriksson(notes). Can Richards play into Hart finalist contention?

Meanwhile, there's this little issue of his impending unrestricted free agency playing out at the same time he's leading the Stars. The Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) deal was a message to Richards that the Stars are serious about contending; will he sign before the deadline? Before season's end? At all?

Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes), Toronto Maple Leafs

Forget another trip on the Tomas Kaberle(notes) merry-go-round; let's talk about another Leafs no-trade clause. Giggy's salary and cap hit are less of an issue, as they're pro-rated at the deadline and he goes unrestricted next summer. His health is the main concern, along with this no-trade clause that Giguere said he'd be willing to consider waiving. Bottom line: Giguere is an inconsistent 33-year-old netminder who just so happens to have more postseason experience than the majority of the keepers in this league. In a tandem, for a playoff team, he could be an asset.

Chris Stewart(notes), Colorado Avalanche

While Peter Forsberg will grab the headlines and Craig Anderson(notes) will make fans clasp their hands together praying for a return to dominance, Stewart's the one we have our eyes on. He had 11 goals and 25 points before injuring himself in a fight on Nov. 27. Since then, he's had two assists in six games back. Colorado is 6-2 when he scores a goal, and he was an offensive force earlier in the season. They need him back at that level.

Alex Ovechkin(notes), Washington Capitals

Ovechkin is on pace for exactly 30 goals this season, which would be 16 fewer than his career low. Everyone's been asking if he'll remain on that pace or catch fire in the stretch run ... well, now it's the stretch run. The Capitals are 15th in the NHL in team goals. They need the captain to lead, and have this team rediscover its offensive swagger before the postseason. Maybe last night's hit on PK Subban(notes) is an indication that Ovechkin is rounding back into form:

Jeff Skinner(notes), Carolina Hurricanes

Logan Couture(notes) still has the rookie goal lead with 22 in 49 games. Skinner has the point lead with 40 in 51 games, to Couture's 33 ... and also had an entire weekend when the hockey media fawned over him as the Justin Bieber of the NHL in Raleigh. The Hurricanes begin the day ninth in the East; can Skinner help lead them to the postseason cut or is there a rookie wall he's yet to collide with as an 18-year-old star?

Dwayne Roloson(notes), Tampa Bay Lightning

Roloson has four shutouts for the Lightning since coming over from the New York Islanders. He's also had three games in which he's given up four goals or more. Taking away those extremes, he's been very solid for the Bolts, who might be in the lead for the Presidents' Trophy now were it not for their goalie foibles earlier this season. Is Roloson the answer?

Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Atlanta Thrashers

His lead in points as a defenseman has evaporated, as Keith Yandle(notes) now has 45. His lead in goals (16) is being threatened by another recent forward/defense 'tweeer in Brent Burns(notes) of the Minnesota Wild (14). Dustin Byfuglien and the Norris Trophy have been synonymous for most of the season, and he's still third in the USA Today power rankings for that award. But he's scoreless in his last 11 games, playing to a minus-6. The Thrashers need him to regain form, having gone 3-5-3 in that stretch. Getting Tobias Enstrom(notes) healthy would be a start.

Marian Hossa(notes), Chicago Blackhawks

Hossa had a goal and a helper in last night's 7-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blackhawks are a bubble team in the Western Conference as the stretch run begins; after scoring seven goals in October, Hossa has four since returning from injury on Dec. 26. He heats up, the Blackhawks move up the standings.

Sergei Bobrovsky(notes), Philadelphia Flyers

'Bob' was pulled last night against the Lightning, a rare misstep for a goalie that was on a six-game winning streak, having not given up more than two goals in the game during January. Simply put, the undrafted Russian rookie remains the key to the Flyers' playoff drive, solving a problem between the pipes from the start of the season. They have other options if he falters; none are as appealing as Bobrovsky when he's on.

Anze Kopitar(notes), Los Angeles Kings

The Kings center has 49 points in 51 games, which is right around his pace for last season. But he also finished 2009-10 with 38 points on the power play ... and this year, doesn't have a power-play point in his last 11 games. He hasn't scored a power-play goal since Dec. 16. The Kings have the goaltending; middle of the pack offensive puts their playoff chances in doubt.

Patrick Marleau(notes), San Jose Sharks

Was last night Patrick Marleau's calling card? The disappointing Sharks forward had the game-winning goal and a helper on Joe Thornton's(notes) empty netter in San Jose's 5-3 win over the Coyotes. He's still in the midst of a season from hell: Following up a career year with 19 goals and a minus-17. But much like Hossa with Chicago, if he finds some consistency, the Sharks can start to live life off the bubble. 

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