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On tap: We've officially hit the "stretch run" of the 2008-09 season, as this is the second-busiest week we'll see all year; the most action-packed week comes three short weeks from now. Plus, between Weeks 20 and 21, no team in the league will play fewer than six games, and the Flyers are the only one with a two-game week (Week 20). As such, it's more critical than ever to pick and choose quality, not quantity, of matchups.
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 20 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 20 stat sources:
Blue Jackets (DAL, STL, @TOR, ANA): Here's a golden opportunity for the Blue Jackets to boost their current No. 20 ranking in goals per game (2.63), as three of these opponents -- the Stars, Blues and Maple Leafs -- rank among the seven worst in the league in goals allowed per contest. In Dallas' case, goalie Marty Turco might be performing more to his usual standards of late, but that doesn't change the fact Columbus has totaled 13 goals against him in three meetings this season. Columbus has been getting some decent under-the-radar performances from free agents in most fantasy leagues, including Jan Hejda (6 assists, plus-5 rating in his past 10 games), Fedor Tyutin (3 goals -- two on the power play -- and 1 assist in his past five) and R.J. Umberger (3 G, 2 A in his past eight). Take a look if you need a one-week sub.
Blues (NYR, @CLS, @NSH, NSH): Yes, two of these opponents are also listed among my "favorable matchups" of Week 20, but there's nothing saying the Blues can't at least hang in those games. Fantasy performance isn't always a one-sided thing, you know. Besides, this pick is all about that home-and-home series against the Predators, a team St. Louis has defeated in three of four meetings this season, by a combined score of 15-9. The Blues are finally getting healthier, with both Andy McDonald and Keith Tkachuk rejoining their lineup within the past month, and they're getting some helpful contributions from David Backes (5 goals, 6 assists in his past 12 games), Patrick Berglund (2 G, 3 A in his past seven) and Carlo Colaiacovo (1 G, 6 A in his past seven), too. All three make decent back-of-your-lineup fill-ins this week.
Hurricanes (BOS, @NYI, TB, COL): Remember two weeks ago, when the Hurricanes were in a bit of a funk and facing one of the toughest parts of their schedule? Well, they've escaped that rough stretch, and are winners of six of their past nine games, averaging 2.67 goals per game (compared to 2.22 allowed) during that stretch, putting them back on the fantasy map. The Bruins on Tuesday represents their only truly difficult matchup the remainder of the month, as Buffalo is the only other team Carolina will face in their final seven games that doesn't rank among the bottom eight in either goals scored or allowed per game. In fact, the Islanders, Lightning and Avalanche this week each rank among the bottom 10 in both categories. Goalie Cam Ward, in spite of Thursday's meltdown, is 5-3-0 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in his past eight games, warranting No. 2 fantasy status. Matt Cullen (4 goals, 5 assists, plus-3 rating in his past six games) and Sergei Samsonov (2 G, 4 A in his past three) are also red hot, and well worth activating.
Rangers (@STL, NYI, @BUF, TOR): If the Rangers are to have any prayer of mounting an offensive attack this season -- something they're going to need to do to cement a playoff spot in the East -- this is sure the schedule for them to do it. The Blues, Islanders and Maple Leafs rank 27th (3.07), 28th (3.31) and 30th (3.62) in goals allowed per game this season, and in four past meetings with the Islanders, the Rangers did total a respectable 12 goals. You already know to keep goalie Henrik Lundqvist active, but this is a week to dig into the Rangers' skater ranks, too. Keep an eye especially on the new No. 2 line of Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Nikolai Zherdev, players who totaled a goal and two assists this past Wednesday. There's some sleeper potential in Callahan and Dubinsky for Week 20.
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 Scott Niedermayer -- 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.
Bruins (@CAR, @FLA, @TB): No matter how talented a team, the fact remains that three road games, completing a five-game road trip, doesn't represent a favorable fantasy schedule for anyone. No, that doesn't mean you should sit a Zdeno Chara, Phil Kessel or Marc Savard, but picking choosing from your lesser Bruins is recommended. In goal, for instance, Tim Thomas might be shaping up as the go-to guy, but with back-to-back games, there's almost no way he's playing more than twice, and he'll probably get the tougher two: The games in Carolina and Florida. In addition, check out these players' home/road splits in terms of points per game: David Krejci (1.19 home, 0.86 road), Milan Lucic (0.78 and 0.54) and Blake Wheeler (0.67 and 0.54). Unless I sorely lacked viable alternatives, none would start for me this week.
Ducks (LA, @DET, @CLS): It's finally here, make-or-break time for Anaheim, and I'm teetering closer to the "break" side judging by this team's recent performance, 9-9-1 in the 2009 calendar year. The Ducks might currently stake their claim to the No. 5 seed in the West, but if you examine the standings closely, they're three points ahead of No. 9 Edmonton, and four and five ahead of Week 20 opponents Columbus and Los Angeles. This team lacks stability in net; formerly hot Jonas Hiller has dropped four of his past nine decisions and as such has been dropped to a backup role in the team's past three games. These three opponents, too, can score. Don't sit your obvious Ducks, but understand there's a huge downside for them this week.
Thrashers (@LA, @PHO, @SJ): A three-game West Coast road swing? No thank you, especially not for a team averaging a league-worst 1.50 goals per game since the All-Star break. That's right, you read that correctly, even the Rangers have scored more often than Atlanta during that span. Ron Hainsey (1 assist, minus-3 rating in his past nine games), Bryan Little (scoreless, minus-4 in his past 10) and Todd White (1 A, minus-8 in his past 10) are in the midst of horrific funks, and should all be benched if possible. Beyond Ilya Kovalchuk, there just isn't much here.
Wild (CGY, DET, @CHI): Minnesota hasn't been able to muster any sort of offense the past couple of weeks, averaging 2.14 goals per game in its past seven, with only Mikko Koivu (3 goals, 3 assists), Antti Miettinen (2 G, 3 A) and Owen Nolan (1 G, 2 A but three missed games) serving as particularly worthy fantasy skaters during that span. Even worse, the Flames, Red Wings and Blackhawks each rank among the top seven teams in goals scored per game, each averaging better than three per contest for the season. Goalie Niklas Backstrom can't ever be benched, but wins might be a problem for him in Week 20. Keep your Wild options limited.
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.
" Niklas Hagman, LW, Maple Leafs: A historically streaky player, Hagman appears to have turned the switch to "on" lately, with three goals and three assists in his past three games, all of them on the road. He's displaying exceptional chemistry with Jason Blake and Dominic Moore -- the trio has totaled 10 goals and 19 assists in Toronto's past seven games -- and is a solid start in a four-game, three-at-home week.
" Kyle Okposo, RW, Islanders: Four-game weeks -- three of those at home -- are the best times to pick and choose your matchups from teams this awful, and to be fair, Okposo is one of the Islanders' most promising youngsters. As the team plays out the season, he'll continue to see nearly 20 minutes per game, while getting a good share of power-play time. Okposo has six goals -- four on the power play -- in his past nine games, a level of production well worth gambling on this week.
" Joe Pavelski, C, Sharks: San Jose's Week 19 schedule was fairly unattractive for a player of Pavelski's caliber, and unsurprisingly, he has one goal and an even rating in his past three games, all of them on the road. The team returns home Tuesday, though, to face two teams that rank among the bottom five in goals allowed per game -- Edmonton and Atlanta -- and another -- Los Angeles -- that the Sharks have already beaten in all three meetings this season. Pavelski should get things back on track, and in 28 home games this season, he has nine goals and 22 points, eight of those on the power play.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.