As we enter the stretch drive of the NHL's regular season, here are five things worth monitoring:
After being named to Team Canada's World Cup roster earlier this month, the veteran blueliner was injured in a game last Thursday night. No firm timeline for his return, although he's expected back at least before the playoffs. The Sharks are never the same team without him. In fact, there are many to this day who still point to his injury early in Game 5 of that 2014 playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings as the turning point in the Kings coming back from a 3-0 series deficit. He's an incredibly important player on that team. Mind you, they've gone 2-0 since he went down, so perhaps this Sharks team has better blue-line depth to deal with it. Vlasic has had a career season offensively with 39 points while once again putting on a defensive clinic. He's key on the Sharks' penalty killing and also plays on the second power play. It will be interesting how the Sharks fare over the next two to three weeks without Vlasic as they battle the Anaheim Ducks for second place in the Pacific Division and home ice in a first-round series.
2. Will the Florida Panthers' new third line be the X factor in the playoffs?
As detailed by the Miami Herald, a new third line of Teddy Purcell, Nick Bjugstad and Jiri Hudler has showed promise since being put together. They've only played three games but the chemistry seems there. Both Purcell and Hudler were picked up at the trade deadline for modest prices by general manager Dale Tallon in the hope that both players would help fortify the top-nine forward group. "They've looked good with Nick so far," Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant told ESPN.com Monday ahead of a game at the New York Rangers. Bjugstad might have been Florida's best forward last season. He's battled injuries this season but if his new linemates help bring him back to a consistent level, the Panthers will be a more dangerous team come playoff time. The trade deadline is often an overrated time to make moves, but in this case, it might prove to have been a wise move by Tallon.
3. How will Thomas Vanek respond to being scratched again?
Interesting things happening in Minnesota, where $6.5 million man Vanek has been left behind two straight games by new head coach John Torchetti in a playoff race, no less, when every game means so much. Gutsy! Vanek's 18 goals are actually third on the team, but clearly the veteran winger's effort in other areas of the ice was frustrating the coach. There's still another season on Vanek's deal, and he has a full no-movement clause. That's a tough pill to swallow for a team with little cap room. Colleague Craig Custance in his blog Monday morning wondered about Vanek's old stomping grounds in Buffalo being a potential fit next season. Perhaps we'll see a motivated and re-energized Vanek once Torchetti puts him back in. The Wild better hope so.
4. Can the Kings keep fighting after clinching?
Somewhat under the radar over the weekend was the news that the Kings clinched a playoff spot. In the Cup championship seasons of 2012 and 2014, they didn't clinch until early April. This season they've got lots of leeway to play with, which might be a little surreal for them. First place in the Pacific Division is still at play, which is no small carrot. Avoiding California rivals Anaheim or San Jose in the opening round because of the toll that series would take right off the hop should be motivation enough for the Kings to try to win the division. Not that the Nashville Predators, Colorado Avalanche or Minnesota Wild would be pushovers, but I still think you'd rather face them than Anaheim or San Jose.
5. Is Ben Bishop in the Vezina Trophy race?
It has seemed like a forgone conclusion for a while now that NHL GMs would likely vote Braden Holtby the Vezina winner this season as top goalie, given his league-leading 43 wins and overall sparkling season. But I wonder if we're not going to get a closer vote than one assumes. Jonathan Quick should get a hard look as well as Corey Crawford. And I would submit Bishop and his NHL-leading 2.02 goals-against average as worthy of the discussion as well. The Bolts haven't scored goals like we're used to seeing and I think the work of their No. 1 goalie has gone under the radar nationally.