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Brian Duff's Blog: 10 to watch after the Olympic break

The Bruins will need goalie Tuukka Rask to be hot in the season's final quarter if they hope to get back into the playoff hunt. Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers scores the game-winning goal in the shootout against Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins on October 22, 2009 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Bruins 4-3 in a shootout. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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The Bruins will need goalie Tuukka Rask to be hot in the season's final quarter if they hope to get back into the playoff hunt. Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers scores the game-winning goal in the shootout against Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins on October 22, 2009 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Bruins 4-3 in a shootout. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Niclas Bergfors – Atlanta  
Five games with his new club and under the pressure of being dealt for Ilya Kovalchuk, Bergfors produced three goals – two of them game-winners – for a Thrashers team that has the most games left among those fighting for eighth in the Eastern Conference.

Fourteen of Bergfors’ final 22 games will be in front of the home fans, so the chance to win them over is certainly there.

Tuukka Rask – Boston

If he carries the mail the rest of the way, Boston’s rookie netminder will end up with between 45 and 50 games played. If that happens, he will undoubtedly have to be playing at the same level he is now, which means he’d be in the running for the Calder Trophy.

Rask is already first in goals-against average and third in save percentage, reminding us (along with Jimmy Howard and Tyler Myers) the Calder race is wide open, even if Matt Duchene is cruising.

Thomas Vanek – Buffalo

While I still believe part of his problem is the lack of a consistently good center, Vanek does seem to be finding ways not to score. His chances are plentiful and his shot totals will be similar to his first four seasons, but he has passed up numerous opportunities to shoot in odd-man situations and sometimes defies physics by missing what appear to be tap-ins from in tight.

All that said, should he produce his first multi-goal game since Oct. 13 soon after the break, it could trigger a flood of goals in the final six weeks.

Eric Staal – Carolina

Canes coach Paul Maurice says Staal is healthy again. Staal was the catalyst to an impressive pre-Olympic push by the team that still occupies 14th in the East. But, really, this is more about how he’s brought everyone else on the team along for the ride. Jussi Jokinen – riding a nine-game point streak – is clutch and on fire. Brandon Sutter has 10 points in his past 11 games and leaves a nightly impression.

The team has been winning without Cam Ward, using goalies (Manny Legace and Justin Peters) who were buried on the depth chart before. After last year’s sizzling finish, maybe nine points back with 21 games to go is not the impossible dream.

Kris Versteeg – Chicago

Is he the next to be traded? With no goals in his past 16 games and only two points in the past 14, Versteeg appears to be working his way down the depth chart among the Blackhawks’ great glut of skilled forwards.

With two years left on his contract and a cap hit of just more than $3 million, there would have to first be interest. But his stock can’t get much lower, can it?

John-Michael Liles – Colorado

An early-season injury to Liles allowed the Avalanche to audition more youngsters on the blueline and that has worked against the 29-year-old ever since. A healthy scratch seven times in the seven weeks before the Olympic break, Liles is in rare company (see Wade Redden, Rangers) of the Top 30 highest paid defensemen who’ve been exiled (at times) to the press box.

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Strangely, if you prorated his stats over a full season, he’d come up with 48 points, one shy of his career high. But as we know, it’s not always about points and coach Joe Sacco proves it regularly with the 29-year old veteran. With two years still to go on Liles’ four-year deal, how will this one play out?

Randy Sexton – Florida

The Panthers GM isn’t happy and neither are the owners above him. Will all this hot air from Sunrise blow over with nothing Moore than cosmetic changes? Or will Sexton follow through and gut this team, ensuring 10 straight years of no playoffs for Panthers fans, but perhaps a new beginning? It’s shown signs of starting with the trade of Jordan Leopold to the Penguins Monday.

Niklas Backstrom – Minnesota

For goalies, it sometimes does just comes down to numbers – like .929, .920, .923…and now .901?

What has happened to Backstrom’s save percentage and is it entirely the result of more chances being allowed under a new system?

I think not. If Backstrom doesn’t get his save percentage up to at least .905 (preferably .910), it’s hard to imagine the Wild clearing the remaining hurdles to get into the top eight in the West.

Marian Gaborik – Rangers

He started the year with 15 goals in his first 19 games. If he ends it in the same fashion (15 in New York’s final 20), Gaborik will hit 50 for the first time in his career.

If he’s healthy and accomplishes that, carrying the Rangers into the playoffs as a result, how much consideration would he get for the Hart Trophy?

Steve Downie – Tampa Bay

Rapidly putting his past behind him, Downie is the plus/minus leader on the Lightning by a whopping 13. Downie’s personal stats are sensational. In the past 25 games, he has nine goals, 21 points and a plus-15 rating.

In the past month his ice time has regularly been more than 16 minutes a night, which is significant when you consider how much time he still spends in the box (163 minutes – tied for second in the league).

Clearly coach Rick Tocchet has done a great job with him and GM Brian Lawton deserves credit, too, as the deal that sent Matt Carle to Philadelphia is now looking much better for Tampa Bay than it was originally.

Brian Duff is a host of On The Fly on the NHL Network. Like his minor hockey days (playing goalie, defense and forward) his broadcasting career has been all over the map. In radio and TV from Medicine Hat to Edmonton, Toronto to Ottawa and back, Brian has been with the NHL Network since 2007 and has been covering the game for nearly 15 years. Read more of his THN.com Blog HERE.

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