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Friday, January 25, 2008
Boyle makes strong return


I've got a task for you, before you continue reading today's blog. Go to your fantasy hockey league, check the free-agent list and see whether you're one of the lucky ones who play in one of the 9.4 percent of ESPN leagues in which Dan Boyle remains available.

Last night, around, oh, 11 p.m., shortly after Boyle scored two goals in his return to the Lightning lineup, I discovered I was one of those lucky owners -- and at that time, he was available in 15.7 percent of ESPN leagues. Amazingly, despite his 20-goal, 63-point stat line of a year ago, or his being picked No. 8 among defensemen on average in the preseason (No. 49 overall), Boyle was let go by his owner.

It's an understandable scenario. Entering Thursday's action, the final day before the All-Star break, Boyle had missed 36 consecutive Lightning games, and 45 of 49 this season, having undergone two surgeries to repair severed tendons in his wrist. Some owners might not have had the luxury of a deep bench to stash him; those owners might have had him on their watch lists, awaiting his healthy return shortly after this weekend's All-Star break.

Well, to those owners tracking Boyle's health, let me say, he's sure healthy. He skated 24 minutes, 25 seconds Thursday, tops on the team, 3:35 of that on the power play. Plus, if there are any concerns of him suffering day-after effects, the All-Star break's rest should alleviate them. The Lightning play 32 more games; scale his career numbers with them to that number and he'd be a 6-goal, 21-point performer. In 2006-07, he had 9-23 numbers in that many contests. Those are elite fantasy totals, and he's absolutely up to the task.

Who needs Dany Heatley? Daniel Alfredsson managed a hat trick and a career-high seven points, while Jason Spezza scored two goals and added two assists, in the Senators' 8-4 rout of the Lightning. That puts Alfredsson on a 52-goal, 110-point pace, each of those on track to set new personal bests (he had 43-103 numbers in 2005-06). Alfredsson will continue to be asked to lead the offense in Heatley's absence, and while his paces seem a bit unrealistic, he looks almost certain to breeze past the 40-goal, 100-point plateaus.

Oh, how typical, Johan Holmqvist, just when he appeared in the midst of a hot streak, was the victim of Thursday's 8-4 thrashing by the Senators. He served up three goals on 14 shots, snapping his four-game winning streak and forcing him from the game after one period. Well, it sure was quick, but yes, it's time to bail on Holmqvist once again.

Patrik Elias scored two goals for the second consecutive game, a promising sign for him heading into the All-Star break. He has eight goals and 13 points in his past 13 contests, and look at the Devils' schedule to begin the second half: Of their next 19 games, 13 will be played at home. They'll face the Hurricanes three times, Capitals and Senators twice and Kings, Maple Leafs, Sabres and Thrashers once; all of those teams rank among the bottom 10 in the league defensively. Expect Elias' hot streak to continue.

Could back-to-back home games against the Thrashers have gotten the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist back on track? He stopped 17 of 18 shots and didn't allow a goal in the shootout to win both of the teams' meetings this week in New York. Lundqvist is 4-2-1 with a 1.69 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in his past seven games, so continue to treat him as a No. 1 option once the season's second half kicks off.

Ty Conklin's winning ways might have come to an end, and his four goals allowed on Thursday were his most since Dec. 20. Still, in spite of his 1-2-2 record in his past five games, he has a 2.35 GAA and .934 save percentage during that span, keeping him at worst a No. 2 fantasy option. The All-Star break's rest should do him some good.

It's amazing how one newspaper report criticizing a player for his poor play -- in this case, Jarret Stoll's five-game scoreless streak -- can often inspire a quick turnaround in performance. He scored two goals Thursday, only his third multi-goal effort since his promising 22-goal, 68-point campaign in 2005-06. At 25 years old, Stoll is a better player than he has showed to date, but he's going to need more than this to be pickup-worthy.

Alexander Ovechkin's two assists helped lead the Capitals to a 2-1 victory, though they snapped his six-game goal-scoring streak. He had 39 goals in 49 games heading into the night, and with a goal might have joined some exclusive company. According to ESPN research's Vincent Masi, the last player to have scored 40 goals before a break was Jaromir Jagr heading into the 2005-06 Olympic break, though that was in 58 games. Jagr also had 41 goals in 44 games before the 1996-97 All-Star break.

The Sabres appear to be getting themselves back on track offensively, scoring 16 goals in their past four contests, though they won only twice. Leading the charge: Derek Roy, who netted two goals Thursday and now has five goals and seven points in those four contests. He's the team leader in goals (18) and is one point behind Jason Pominville for the team lead (37), and should be primed for a strong finish as the Sabres get healthier as a team. Roy's absence, after all, was a big reason for the team's recent funk.

Pascal Leclaire tossed his eighth shutout of the season Thursday, extending his league lead. He's a winner in six of his past seven games and has started seven of the Blue Jackets' past eight contests, returning him to No. 1 fantasy goalie status. The Blue Jackets play a fairly favorable schedule to kick off the season's second half, including two games against the Coyotes and one apiece against the Blackhawks, Kings, Sharks and Wild in the team's first nine contests, so expect Leclaire's hot streak to continue for awhile longer.

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The Coyotes are in the midst of a remarkable 15-7-2 run, and while goalie Ilya Bryzgalov deserves a huge chunk of the credit, Radim Vrbata also warrants our attention. He managed his first career hat trick Thursday, his first game since returning from a groin injury, and has 12 goals and 21 points in his past 21 contests. Vrbata, recently dropped in about a third of ESPN leagues, should be scooped back up immediately.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.