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On tap: It's the first full week of the season's traditional second half, and playoff races are finally beginning to heat up, as are trade rumors, with the deadline a little more than a month away (March 4). It's a key time for expected playoff contenders like the Canucks, Ducks, Hurricanes and Penguins, none of whom is a guarantee to make it past April. Unfortunately not one of those teams made my favorable-schedules cutoff; they're going to need to rise above challenging schedules in the short-term.
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 18 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.
Quantity might be 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 18 stat sources:
Flames (@COL, @DAL, CHI, ANA): What makes this such a favorable schedule for the Flames is that their two stiffest challenges come in home, not road, games, and one of those opponents, the Ducks, are an ice-cold 3-7-0 in their past 10 contests. It's a perfect time to ride the Miikka Kiprusoff bandwagon, considering he's 11-2-0 with a 2.67 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in his past 13 games. Also take a look at red-hot Adrian Aucoin, who has eight assists despite a minus-5 rating in his past seven contests.
Red Wings (STL, PHO, EDM, @PIT): Ignore their current four-game losing streak, because those coincided with the conclusion of a six-game road trip that carried the team into and out of the All-Star break. In other words, it wasn't the most favorable of schedules for Detroit, but this one suits the team much more nicely. The Blues (26th, 3.20), Coyotes (21st, 2.94) and Oilers (25th, 3.11) each rank among the 10 worst teams in the league in terms of goals allowed per game, and need we remind you the Red Wings rank first -- handily at that -- in goals scored per game (3.62)? Dig as deep as you like on Detroit's side, with Valtteri Filppula my sleeper from their roster; he has skated nearly 20 minutes in each of two games since the break.
Sabres (@ANA, TOR, MON, @OTT): Buffalo came charging out of the All-Star break with a 10-goal performance this past Tuesday, and while this remains an offense ranked just outside the top 10 in goals per game (12th, 2.88), it boasts enough talent to get into that group by season's end. A Monday trip to Anaheim -- the final game of a six-game road trip sandwiching the break -- presents the toughest matchup for the Sabres, but come Wednesday, back home, this team should be primed for a strong finish to Week 18. Drew Stafford has four goals combined in his first two games of the season's traditional second half, and Tim Connolly has three goals and two assists in those two contests as well. Both belong in your lineup this week.
Stars (CGY, @COL, NYR, NSH): Maybe this team isn't so awful after all! Consider that the Stars are 11-4-3 since Dec. 16, and winners of back-to-back games coming out of the break. Much of their turnaround should be attributed to goalie Marty Turco's improved play; he shut out the Thrashers at home and then defeated the Red Wings in Detroit in the past week, and both of those are potent offenses. The Flames are the only one of Dallas' four Week 18 foes who ranks outside the bottom 10 in goals per game; the Avalanche (22nd, 2.58), Rangers (27th, 2.48) and Predators (28th, 2.43) shouldn't be any problem for a skilled netminder like Turco. In deeper leagues, also take a look at Steve Ott, who has four goals, four assists and a plus-4 rating in his past seven games and is getting in the ballpark of 20 minutes of ice time per game the past couple of weeks.
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 Eric Staal -- 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.
Blackhawks (@EDM, @CGY, @VAN): The statistics tell the whole story; the Blackhawks play like a Stanley Cup-caliber team at home, averaging 3.65 goals scored and 2.17 goals allowed per game, and a more ordinary squad on the road, averaging 2.96 and 2.75 in those categories. This one is a matter of not getting too generous with your starting choices on Chicago's side. The kids -- Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews -- as always are must-starts, but it's a better time to sit lesser types like Martin Havlat, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg.
Hurricanes (@VAN, @SJ, @PHO): Carolina's offense is in a monstrous, month-plus-long funk, and that's what makes a schedule like this so unappealing. In their past 14 games, the Hurricanes have averaged 2.21 goals per contest, only five times managing three or more goals and just once scoring four. The schedule wasn't exactly favorable for Hurricanes skaters, to be fair, but this one isn't any more favorable, a three-game swing west. Tuomo Ruutu, Eric Staal and Ray Whitney are the only Hurricanes averaging close to a point per game on the road this season -- and not one is at that level -- and therefore the only ones worth keeping in your lineup.
Kings (@OTT, @WAS, @NJ): It's about time the Kings started playing some road games -- only 17 of their first 47 contests were road ones -- but this presents one of their more difficult road trips of the second half. Ottawa is a far different team at home, and the Capitals and Devils are current division leaders bound to give even elite teams problems. Washington, incidentally, is practically unbeatable at home, with a 19-3-1 record. Plus/minus could be a real problem for this team in Week 18, and as such, avoiding any Kings skater not named Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov or Anze Kopitar is warranted.
Thrashers (@NYR, NJ, PHI): This team is not off to a very good start in the second half. Atlanta lost back-to-back games to the Stars and Islanders, and at one point had been outscored 6-0 in its first five periods exiting the All-Star break. One thing the Thrashers are known for is inconsistency, and battling three Atlantic Division playoff contenders is not a schedule to help cure that. After all, Atlanta is 4-10-1 against this division; only the miserable Islanders (1-10-2) are worse. Zach Bogosian (3 goals, 2 assists in his past 6 games) and Rich Peverley (3 G, 8 A in his past 6) might be in the midst of completely-out-of-nowhere hot streaks, but fantasy owners can only start them at their own peril.
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.
• Kris Letang, D, Penguins: A fantasy favorite of mine, Letang has yet to realize his full potential this season, but at least he's generally skating 20-plus minutes a game. He racked up two goals, including the game-winner, this past Wednesday, and did so against a talented goalie in Henrik Lundqvist. With Sergei Gonchar on the mend, Letang knows there's no better time than right now to show the Penguins what he's got, and in a four-game week with three of those at home, he's well worth a look.
• Owen Nolan, RW, Wild: Here's a blast from the past if I ever saw one. Nolan, a 44-goal, 84-point performer exactly nine years ago, has fallen short of a point-per-game pace in each of the six full seasons since. Still, even at this late stage of his career, he's the kind of guy who can put forth a decent share of offense in brief hot spells when the matchups call. Minnesota needs offense from anywhere it can find it with Marian Gaborik out for the season, and that's why Nolan is getting starter's minutes of late. He has seven goals and four assists in his past 12 games and gets the benefit of three home games this week.
• Mark Recchi, RW, Lightning: Another blast from the past, Recchi, who turns 41 on Sunday, is like Nolan in that he can provide fantasy owners with surprising totals in brief spurts. He's in the midst of a hot streak in which he has two goals, seven assists and a plus-5 rating in his past eight games, and the schedule remains strong from here. In Week 18, the Lightning get two games against the league-worst Islanders, among three games overall. Can you ask for a more fantasy-friendly schedule than that?
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.