Fantasy Forecaster: Playoff previews
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On tap: It's a great week as potential playoff -- maybe even Stanley Cup Final -- previews are concerned, as many of the league's elite square off. Conference leaders, the Bruins and Sharks, battle in Boston on Tuesday, and the Sharks continue from there to make stops in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and New Jersey on Sunday. The division-leading Bruins and Devils also tangle in New Jersey on Friday; the Rangers duke it out with division rivals New Jersey (Monday) and Philadelphia (Sunday); and the defensively minded Wild head to Detroit to face the offensive juggernaut Red Wings. Sounds like great watching all around -- and those two Sunday games will be on national TV!
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 19 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 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 19 stat sources:
Devils (NYR, NYI, BOS, SJ): Four home games for one of the hottest teams in hockey -- winners of eight of its past nine games and 13 of its past 18 -- is a dream schedule, even with tough-cookie opponents like the Bruins and Sharks included. I'll say this: Having every one of these games spaced out nicely with a day's rest in between works out perfectly for the Devils, who could afford to put Scott Clemmensen in net for every one of those if they want. He's 7-1-0 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in his past eight games, incidentally, and a must-start, at least until Martin Brodeur's return sometime next month. Among skaters, keep riding the hot streak of that Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Jamie Langenbrunner line; Langenbrunner has seven goals, one assist and a plus-5 rating in his past four games, while Zajac has seven assists and a plus-7 during that span.
Flyers (OTT, NYI, @NYR): Ah, if only the Flyers didn't have a goaltending controversy, because these three opponents rank 30th, 27th and 29th in terms of goals scored per game. That's a fabulous schedule for a goalie, but the numbers don't lie; Martin Biron is in a funk, with a 4-5-1 record, 2.77 GAA and .915 save percentage in 10 starts since Christmas. "Backup" Antero Niittymaki, by comparison, is 9-3-2 with a 2.44 GAA and .924 save percentage in 14 starts since Thanksgiving, and sure enough, four of those starts have come in the Flyers' past six games. They're not afraid to ride the hot hand, so take a look at him as a deep-league No. 2 or daily-league spot starter. Also take a look at Joffrey Lupul, now healthy and in the midst of an eight-game streak in which he has two goals and three assists.
Lightning (ATL, TOR, WAS): This might seem an odd pick considering Tampa Bay ranks 24th in goals scored per game, but the Lightning haven't been as inept an offense in recent weeks as the full-season numbers suggest. In their past 14 games they've averaged 3.00 goals per contest, and that's generally the mark of a top-10 team (Montreal ranks 10th for the season with 2.96 per game). So how have they been doing it? Inspired play from some lesser-known fantasy types, each well worth your attention: Ryan Malone has three goals in his past five games, skating 20-plus minutes in each of his past two; waiver pickup Cory Murphy has a goal and four assists in his first seven games for the Lightning; and 41-year-old Mark Recchi has two goals, nine assists and a plus-4 rating in his past 11 contests. By the way, the Maple Leafs and Thrashers rank 30th and 29th for the season in goals allowed per game.
Red Wings (@NSH, MIN, @CLS, COL): This schedule is a goaltender's dream, because not one of those four opponents ranks higher than 20th in goals per game for the season (Predators, 26th, 2.51; Wild, 23rd, 2.56; Blue Jackets, 21st, 2.65; Avalanche, 20th, 2.65). The problem: Neither Chris Osgood nor Ty Conklin has established himself as the clear-cut starter, so picking and choosing -- especially you daily-league owners -- seems the smart play here. Osgood has started four of the Red Wings' past five games and has won each of the past two, so he gets the edge here, shaping up as a viable No. 2 option in deeper weekly formats. As for Red Wings skaters, by this stage of the season you should know what to do, but one tip: Valtteri Filppula has one goal and seven assists in his past 11 games, averaging nearly 17 minutes' ice time during that span (16 minutes, 46 seconds, to be specific).
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 Evgeni Malkin -- 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.
Penguins (SJ, @TOR): It's a two-game schedule, one of three in Week 19, and the least attractive one at that. As you'll see below, I'm not recommending San Jose's schedule either, but since these teams skated to a 2-1 Sharks victory out west on Oct. 28, a similarly low-scoring affair might be in order. That leaves little quantity to go around this week for lesser Penguins like Kris Letang (held scoreless in seven of his past eight games), Miroslav Satan (1 goal in his past six games) and Jordan Staal (1 G, 2 assists, minus-2 rating in his past five).
Senators (@BUF, @PHI, @MIN): Such a bland, boring fantasy team this is, with only Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza your must-starts, perhaps a little Mike Fisher and Filip Kuba, and maybe a goalie on a spot-start basis, if you can pick out the right one from week to week. This is a prime week to stick to only the "big three," though, when the schedule includes road trips to three cities that aren't exactly the easiest places to play. Another thing to consider: Ottawa is 4-8-3 since Jan. 1, averaging a mere 2.40 goals per game during that slump.
Sharks (@BOS, @PIT, @BUF, @NJ): This might be the most out-of-place "unfavorable" pick, because San Jose still boasts the second-most points of any team in the league (78). Problem is, these four road games, completing a five-game eastern swing, come at a very bad time for the Sharks, who dropped back-to-back home games before hitting the road. Look at the stats: The Sharks, an exceptional home team, have won 61.9 percent of their road contests in 2008-09. These opponents, by comparison, have won 58.9 percent of their games overall, and 60.4 at home. So that means not getting too creative this week with picking your Sharks; the incredibly streaky Jonathan Cheechoo (0 points in his past 5 games), Devin Setoguchi (1 goal, 1 assist in his past 6) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (1 G in his past 5) need to be returned to your bench.
Thrashers (@TB, CHI, @ANA): How bad have things gotten for Atlanta defensively? Consider that in the past 15 days, each of the five players to average 20-plus minutes of ice time has a rating of minus-2 or worse. I've already mentioned that the Lightning have been playing better offense lately, and so have the Ducks, with 18 goals in their past six games. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, rate fourth in goals per game for the season (3.34). There's huge plus/minus downside in Thrashers players in Week 19, and most of their skaters aren't performing adequately enough of late besides. Outside of Ilya Kovalchuk, an obvious start, their five next-most owned fantasy players have combined for two assists and a minus-9 rating in the past 15 days. It's a better idea to look elsewhere for production.
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.
|Monday, Feb. 9||Devils (NYR)||Canadiens (@CGY)|
|Tuesday, Feb. 10||Red Wings (@NSH)||Panthers (TOR)|
|Wednesday, Feb. 11||Wild (COL)||Stars (PHO)|
|Thursday, Feb. 12||Lightning (TOR)||Flyers (OTT)|
|Friday, Feb. 13||Panthers (NYR)||Canucks (@DAL)|
|Saturday, Feb. 14||Maple Leafs (PIT)||Flyers (NYI)|
|Sunday, Feb. 15||Ducks (ATL)||Sabres (CAR)|
• Marc-Andre Bergeron, D, Wild: Sooner or later he was bound to hit his groove in Minnesota, with his booming shot from the point that helps him rack up notable hot streaks for fantasy owners. Bergeron has three goals in his past four games, one of those on the power play, and a plus-6 rating during that span. With the Wild facing three teams that rank in the bottom half of the league defensively -- Colorado, Detroit and Ottawa -- he should be able to contribute a healthy point total, especially on the power play.
• Gregory Campbell, C, Panthers: There are a lot of Panthers skaters I'd recommend this week, as the team plays four games, three of them at home, but I'm picking Campbell as one of my "sleepers" because he's the one who most fits the description. Sure, Cory Stillman and Stephen Weiss probably qualify, but Campbell is owned in even fewer leagues than they are -- 1.7 percent of ESPN leagues, to be exact -- and isn't all that much less productive in fantasy. He has goals in two of his past three games and continues to skate 18 minutes or so per night; this hot streak isn't cooling off anytime soon.
• Tim Connolly, C, Sabres: A perennial health risk, Connolly has certainly gotten into a groove since returning from a broken rib in early January. He's demonstrating remarkable chemistry on Buffalo's "second line" with Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek -- I use quotes because any Vanek line might feel like the No. 1 -- with eight goals and three assists in his past eight games. Plus, the Sabres get the benefit of three home games in Week 19, two of those against so-so defensive teams Ottawa and Carolina.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.