SUN Hockey Pool

Watch these NHLers down the stretch

Flyers goaltender llya Bryzgalov is scored on by the Senators at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, Ont.,...

Flyers goaltender llya Bryzgalov is scored on by the Senators at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, Ont., Jan. 8, 2012. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:04 AM ET

TORONTO - Down the stretch they come ...

As the National Hockey League looks past all-star weekend, the unofficial second half of the season will kick off on Tuesday with teams continuing to jockey for playoff positions.

In the Eastern Conference, just 10 points separate No. 7 from No. 15. The race in the West is even tighter, with the logjam featuring only a six-point gap between seventh and 12th.

Here are 10 key figures who could play significant roles in determining who is in and who is out by the time all is said and done.

SIDNEY CROSBY

GM Ray Shero said on Saturday that he is “optimistic” that Crosby will play again this season, although there is no set timetable. Crosby recently resumed skating in Los Angeles before returning to Pittsburgh the past week.

“Hopefully we’ll see next week as to where he is and we’ll get the reports from California and compare notes to what’s been done so far,” Shero told reporters in Ottawa.

With Evgeni Malkin already playing at a Hart Trophy-like level, it says here that getting Crosby back from his concussion woes would make Pittsburgh the class of the league.

BRENDAN SHANAHAN

Sheriff Shanny’s rulings (including possible suspensions) over the final 10 weeks of the regular season definitely will play a role in the quest for post-season spots. The difference between making and missing the playoffs could be as fragile as a Shanny decision to banish a star player from suiting up for three games.

DARCY REGIER

With his team 10 points out of a playoff spot with 33 games to go, does the Buffalo GM blow things up and deal talented underachievers like Derek Roy and/or Ryan Miller?

Or does he opt against it and hope his team can make up the gap in the standings as it gets healthier?

All the while, how long before the patience of disgruntled moneybags owner Terry Pegula runs out? Will Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff survive?

BRIAN BURKE

Burke likes to make deals well before the trade deadline arrives. The most common names mentioned on the web and in the blogosphere: Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Clowe, Bobby Ryan.

ALEX OVECHKIN

Feeling he has been targeted by Shanahan and the NHL, a bitter Ovechkin skipped the NHL all-star game after being slapped with a three-game suspension.

If Ovechkin comes back after the break re-dedicated to getting the Caps into the playoffs, coach Dale Hunter will be pleased.

If, however, he still is pouting when he resumes playing after serving his punishment, there could be troubled times in Washington.

BOB MURRAY

Ryan, Getzlaf and goalie Jonas Hiller all have heard their names in trade scuttlebutt. Any of these three could be difference makers for the teams that land them.

Question is, will Murray pull the trigger?

ILYA BRYZGALOV

Do goalies automatically crumble when they put on an orange-and-black Flyers jersey?

The Flyers shook up their entire roster including shipping out Jeff Carter and Mike Richards partially in order to fit Bryzgalov’s nine-year, $51 million US extension into their salary structure.

For all the trouble they went to, they deserve better than a 2.99 GAA and a .895 save%.

TIM THOMAS

Seven months ago he led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup. This past week a Bruins source told the Boston Globe that Thomas was a “(bleepin’) selfish (bleep)” for not joining his teammates at the White House.

Will Thomas’ stand effect the defending Cup champs on the ice and in the dressing room?

PIERRE GAUTHIER

Will he continue housecleaning after getting rid of Mike Cammalleri?

Does he still have valuable assets that will land significant return on the open market?

More importantly, how does the Habs GM still have his job?

PAUL MACLEAN

Easily the frontrunner for coach of the year honours, can he get his Cinderella Ottawa Senators into the post-season before the clock strikes midnight?

Sorry Leafs fans but the Sens easily are the feel-good story of the NHL season.


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