Fantasy Forecaster: Belief in the Blackhawks
On tap: The red-hot Blackhawks, 7-1-3 in their past 11 games, hit the road Tuesday for the first of a six-game road trip, their second-longest all season. It'll be interesting to see the impact on this dominant-at-home, so-so-on-the-road squad; since the 2007-08 All-Star break Chicago is 16-3-4 at home, 8-11-4 on the road. If your Blackhawks kids -- Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews, especially -- endure a brief cold spell this and next week, don't read too much into it. By Week 9, when the team returns home, they should get right back on track. Besides, you'll notice below, the Blackhawks aren't even listed among my "trap" matchups to avoid; that's because I have faith in their talent, and the matchups aren't all that bad!
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The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 7 schedules. In order to help those of you targeting quantity of games, teams with the most games this week are listed first. Ties are first broken by greater number of home games -- a home game is almost always better than a road one -- and then alphabetically by team.
Team Mon. 11/17 Tue. 11/18 Wed. 11/19 Thu. 11/20 Fri. 11/21 Sat. 11/22 Sun. 11/23 Total games Home games Bruins @TOR BUF FLA @MON 4 2 Canucks @NYI @NYR @MIN @PIT 4 0 Hurricanes MON PHO NSH 3 3 Lightning FLA NSH NJ 3 3 Devils FLA NYI @TB 3 2 Flames COL @COL DET 3 2 Penguins MIN @ATL VAN 3 2 Rangers OTT VAN @OTT 3 2 Sabres @BOS PHI NYI 3 2 Senators @NYR MON NYR 3 2 Wild @PIT VAN STL 3 2 Avalanche @CGY CGY @LA 3 1 Canadiens @CAR @OTT BOS 3 1 Coyotes CHI @CAR @PHI 3 1 Ducks WAS @STL @DAL 3 1 Islanders VAN @NJ @BUF 3 1 Oilers @DET @CLS DET 3 1 Predators SJ @TB @CAR 3 1 Red Wings EDM @EDM @CGY 3 1 Blackhawks @PHO @DAL @TOR 3 0 Capitals @ANA @LA @SJ 3 0 Panthers @TB @NJ @BOS 3 0 Kings WAS COL 2 2 Maple Leafs BOS CHI 2 2 Stars CHI ANA 2 2 Thrashers PIT CLS 2 2 Blue Jackets EDM @ATL 2 1 Blues ANA @MIN 2 1 Flyers @BUF PHO 2 1 Sharks @NSH WAS 2 1
Quantity might be all well and good for some fantasy owners, but not for all. Quality matters, too, so if you're picking and choosing from individual matchups -- most important in daily leagues or those with caps on games per position -- I'd take a look at the following four teams as strong Week 7 stat sources:
Bruins (@TOR, BUF, FLA, @MON): They're as hot as a team can get right now, and much of that is the exceptional goaltending duo of Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas. But frustrating for fantasy: Thomas has two starts in the month of November, Fernandez two, so it's a near-even split of the chores. A four-game schedule, fortunately, provides each two chances to play, probably, and since only about 12 goalies play more games than that in a given week anyway, you might find both viable No. 2 options. Phil Kessel and Marco Sturm are also off to sizzling starts, while Patrice Bergeron has four points in his past six games.
Devils (FLA, NYI, @TB): They're 1-4-0 and have scored seven goals since Martin Brodeur was lost to elbow surgery, but at least this week's schedule presents them an opportunity to get their act together. The Panthers (29th, 2.33 goals per game), Islanders (24th, 2.56) and Lightning (30th, 2.06) all rank among the 10 weakest offenses in the game, meaning a potential spot-start opportunity or two for slumping Kevin Weekes, or perhaps even backup Scott Clemmensen if you're willing to scout out the pregame lineups. Johnny Oduya (5 assists in 6 games) and Travis Zajac (1 goal, 4 assists in 6) are also in the midst of mild hot streaks and bear watching.
Ducks (WAS, @STL, @DAL): The Capitals have their work cut out for them in a three-game West Coast swing that comprises the middle of a five-game road trip, so they shouldn't be as tough a matchup for Anaheim as it might seem on paper. From there, it's trips to St. Louis and Dallas to face two of the coldest teams in the league. Both the Blues and Stars are serving up goals in bunches, and this might surprise you, but the Ducks are actually managing three goals per game. You know the veterans, but Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have truly rounded into elite form, having combined for 11 goals and 26 assists in 33 games.
Lightning (FLA, NSH, NJ): Tampa Bay's offense, as noted above, ranks dead last in the league (2.06 goals per game), but this schedule actually provides their skaters some hope. The Panthers' Tomas Vokoun is a horrendous 0-5-0 with a 3.67 goals-against average in five road games this season, the Predators' Dan Ellis is 2-6-1 with a 3.27 GAA in nine road contests and the Devils' Kevin Weekes, is, well, Kevin Weekes. (Ask the Lightning, they'll tell you how unreliable Weekes can be.) Vaclav Prospal (1 G, 4 A in 7 games in November) and Mark Recchi (1 G, 6 A in 7) seem to be picking up the pace, and even in the worst-case scenario that this offense remains sluggish, those actually represent three games that goalie Mike Smith can win.
If you're picking and choosing your matchups, I'd do my best to avoid players from the following four teams. Keep in mind stud players -- like Alexander Ovechkin -- on teams with poor matchups shouldn't normally be benched, but it's worth keeping their schedules in mind if you're deep in high-quality alternatives.
Blues (ANA, @MIN): For the third consecutive week I'm as anti-Blues as can be, and that's in spite of goalie Manny Legace's return from a hip injury Nov. 8. Fact is, in his 63 minutes of action since, he hasn't looked at all in playing shape, serving up seven goals on 37 shots, while his team as a whole has allowed 24 goals in five games in the month of November. St. Louis lacks the star-caliber offense to make up for shoddy defense, and if you look at the Player Rater, there isn't a single Blues player among the top 30 skaters (i.e. excluding goalies), only one in the top 100 (Keith Tkachuk at No. 32) and three in the top 160 (Brad Boyes, 133, and Andy McDonald, 159). Those three and Paul Kariya -- if healthy -- are the only Blues you should be trusting right now, and not one is an elite fantasy option.
Capitals (@ANA, @LA, @SJ): Their home/road splits thus far are striking; they have averaged 3.57 goals per game and allowed 2.00 in home games, but have scored 2.78 per and allowed 3.38 per on the road. Throw in that this is a West Coast trip including stops in Anaheim and San Jose, and there's little to like. I think you know which Capitals remain must-starts regardless of matchup -- hint, one leads the league in points, the other is listed atop this section and the third has a perfect name for hockey: Mike Green. Beyond that, steer clear.
Senators (@NYR, MON, NYR): Those are two games against the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, who hasn't allowed more than two goals in any of his past 10 starts and has a 1.99 GAA for the season, and a third against the Canadiens and Carey Price, who shut this team out on 28 shots Tuesday. The other problem: Ottawa is 4-7-1 in its past 12 games, averaging 2.08 goals in those contests. Obviously Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza should remain active for you, but be cautious with goalie Alex Auld; he has lost back-to-back starts, allowing seven goals on 62 shots (.887 save percentage).
Stars (CHI, ANA): Dallas is off to a miserable start, with the most goals-per-game allowed in the league thus far (3.69), and that's a performance for which a two-game schedule makes the team a must-sit. Goalie Marty Turco might be starting to straighten himself out, with a .924 save percentage in his past four games, but play it safe and give him another week to start making that count in the win column, if you can. Brenden Morrow is the only must-start Stars player.
For those of you in leagues with daily transactions, I've picked a strong matchup on each side of the puck for each day of the upcoming week. My "defensive choice" doesn't always mean simply "play the goalie"; it means the goalie is a strong pick, but indicates every bit as much that the team will be safe and potentially productive in plus/minus. When possible -- and remember, some days boast fewer games than others -- obvious teams have been avoided in favor of sleeper-type selections.
Date Offensive choice (opponent) Defensive choice (opponent) Monday, Nov. 17 Canucks (@NYI) Bruins (@TOR) Tuesday, Nov. 18 Lightning (FLA) Flames (COL) Wednesday, Nov. 19 Ducks (WAS) Canucks (@NYR) Thursday, Nov. 20 Kings (WAS) Devils (FLA) Friday, Nov. 21 Bruins (FLA) Ducks (@STL) Saturday, Nov. 22 Kings (COL) Flyers (PHO) Sunday, Nov. 23 Hurricanes (NSH) Lightning (NJ)
• Jochen Hecht, C, Sabres: I wanted to pick Tim Connolly for this spot, but Connolly is day-to-day with a chest injury, and that bears watching. Still, the two comprise what is shaping up as an impressively potent second line in Buffalo, and a three-game week including home affairs against the Flyers and Islanders suits this offense nicely. Hecht, who recently returned from a finger injury, will be asked to pick up the pace in Connolly's absence or he'll benefit from Connolly as his linemate if the latter does play.
• Kris Letang, D, Penguins: Apparently I hopped his bandwagon a little too early this season, as he endured a disappointing October in his expanded role, notching four assists but a minus-3 rating in his first 11 games. In the month of November, though, Letang appears to have warmed to being Pittsburgh's defensive leader, with an assist in each of five games, a plus-4 rating and a team-high 24 minutes, 15 seconds of ice time. He's every bit capable of stepping into Sergei Gonchar's old role on the blue line, and with three games this week, including one at Atlanta, he should keep up his hot streak.
• Tuomo Ruutu, LW, Hurricanes: Second straight week, sure, but still only 33.5 percent of owners in ESPN leagues are on the Ruutu bandwagon, despite his four goals and four assists in his past eight games. Carolina's schedule does feature challenges in a home game against the Sabres on Wednesday and a road trip to Montreal on Saturday, but it's nevertheless a four-game week, and prime time to load up on Hurricanes skaters. Just like last week, I'll stress this is a short-term thing, as Ruutu is bound to cool or get hurt before long, but until we see signs of that, I'd stand by him.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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