March Madness is in full swing, and we're not talking about the college basketball tournament: the stretch run to the NHL playoffs is heating up.
For some fans, the chance to see their team compete for the Stanley Cup is already on their mind, while others are studying The Hockey News' Future Watch issue to figure out who'll be in charge of leading their favorite squad to glory in the future.
And for those contending teams, the stress is starting to get to their impact players. With playoff spots still up grabs, an extended cold streak by a star player can be all it takes for summer plans to start early. There also isn't a worse time for those looking to pad their stats before contract negotiations get underway to go on a slide.
Here are five players bound for the NHL playoffs that are in need of a bit of a boost as the games continue to wind down:
Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens aren't strangers to having star players go on long cold streaks – Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty had their fair share before getting shipped out in the off-season – and Montreal is witnessing another in the homestretch. With the Canadiens in the midst of a battle to save their season, Drouin has six points in 18 games since Feb. 9, but those six points have been spread across two games, including a two-point night against the New York Islanders on Thursday. While he does have a pair of four-point nights to his credit, Drouin, in his fifth NHL season, has been inconsistent throughout the campaign. He is, however, just two points from registering a new career-high in points, but he'll need to start upping his game soon if he wants to help Carey Price and Co. stay in the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Mikael Granlund, Nashville Predators
When Minnesota sent Granlund to Nashville before the trade deadline, there was hope he'd be a major contributor out of the gate. And he was. He started strong, registering an assist in his first game with the Predators, but he's managed just three points in the next eight games. Nashville is still one of the favorites in the NHL and their depth has been impressive, but Granlund and linemates Nick Bonino and Wayne Simmonds haven't been productive in recent weeks. Granlund has 53 points on the season, but he has been largely invisible since swapping uniforms last month.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus made it clear they were going all in when they acquired Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Ottawa Senators, but the Blue Jackets are on the verge of disaster, sitting on the outside of the post-season looking in with eight games remaining in the season. Dubois' play hasn't helped matters, as the top-six center has only one point in his past 12 games. It's not like it's due to a lack of trying: on Tuesday night, Columbus' top line of Dubois, Cam Atkinson and Artemi Panarin had 25 shot attempts, but Dubois and Atkinson skated away with nothing to show for the effort in a 4-2 loss to the Calgary Flames. The Blue Jackets sit one point behind the Canadiens for the final wild-card spot, and Dubois adding to his impressive 54-point sophomore campaign can go a long way as Columbus chases the post-season.
Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs
When William Nylander was holding out for a new contract, pending restricted free agent Kapanen was one of Toronto's most valuable players and excelled in an elevated role in the lineup. But as of late, Kapanen hasn't been able to find his groove while playing with Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau. In his past seven games, Kapanen has a single point, an assist against Calgary on March 4. And though he has 19 goals this season, Kapanen has only scored five in the 31 games he's played since Jan. 1. Kapanen's 42 points on an entry-level contract has provided great value to the Leafs, but they'll need him to step up come the playoffs if Toronto wants to win their first playoff series since 2004.
Andrew Ladd, New York Islanders
Regardless how it ends, the Islanders can call this season a success. But unfortunately for Ladd, who missed three months with a lower-body injury, it's been a rough go. Ladd had seven points in 14 contests prior to being placed on injured reserve in mid-November and returned to record three points in three games after his return. Ladd hasn't found himself on the scoresheet since March 3, though, failing to contribute any offense over the past seven games. Ladd's three goals this season came back in October. It will be a big relief for one of New York's veteran stars if he figures out how to revive his season.