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On tap: The 2008-09 NHL regular season -- and with it, the fantasy hockey season -- comes to a close Sunday, April 12, and playoff races are as heated as ever entering the final week. The Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Sharks and Red Wings have already clinched playoff spots and are practically locked into their current seedings (though New Jersey has a chance to leapfrog Washington), and Calgary has clinched a spot but is battling for a higher seed.
In the East, seven teams are within nine points of one another for five playoff spots, with the Canadiens (currently seventh), Rangers (eighth), Panthers (ninth) and Sabres (10th) having the most at stake entering the final week. In the West, six teams are within seven points of one another for three playoff spots, a group that includes the Blue Jackets (sixth), Ducks (seventh), Blues (eighth), Predators (ninth), Wild (10th) and Oilers (11th). Naturally, those are the teams you should expect the greatest effort from in the final week.
Good luck in your championship quest!
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 27 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 27 stat sources:
Blues (@PHO, CLS, @COL): Most people picked this team as one of the worst in the league heading into the season, but with a week to play, St. Louis actually finds itself a legitimate playoff contender with a favorable schedule. Both the Coyotes and Avalanche have long since been eliminated from contention and rate among the worst offensive teams in the game, and while the Blue Jackets might pose a challenge, that's a home game for the Blues. David Backes (4 goals this past Thursday), Patrik Berglund (4 G, 3 assists in his past 6 games) and Andy McDonald (3 G, 2 A in his past 7) are well worth activating in most leagues.
Flames (LA, @VAN, @EDM, EDM): They might already be guaranteed a playoff spot, but the Flames have to realize that they can't head into the postseason in the midst of a 5-9-0 funk (their current cold streak), and that by winning the Northwest Division, they can clinch the West's No. 3 seed and two rounds of home-ice advantage. To that end, their game Tuesday at division rival Vancouver is the key matchup here, so expect Calgary to bring maximum effort to that contest, despite its being the second of games on back-to-back nights. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff tends to be at his best in April, making him a prime final-week fantasy choice; he's 9-5-0 with a 1.93 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in 17 career games in April.
Flyers (FLA, @NYR, @NYI, NYR): Though the Flyers can clinch a playoff spot by beating the Panthers or taking them to overtime in their Tuesday matchup, playoff seeding is a key angle for them entering Week 27. They are currently fourth in the East but could easily drop a spot to lose home-ice advantage in the first round, and could conceivably fall as low as eighth with a sluggish finish. The Rangers present a challenge for them, too, but I look at this team and see a playoff-caliber squad, one that has the gusto to succeed facing fellow contenders in must-win games. Daniel Briere continues to excel since returning from a groin injury, with four goals and seven assists in his past eight games, while rookie Claude Giroux is shaping up as an offensive force, with three goals and four assists in his past three contests. He's well worth a final-week pickup and is a must-own in keeper formats.
Penguins (@TB, NYI, @MON): Amazing to think that this team that was so good a year ago is now fighting for its playoff life heading into the final week of the season. Looking at their schedule, though, the Penguins would probably be picked as a playoff entrant. They play games against two of the three worst teams in the league before wrapping up in Montreal against a conference rival. The Lightning (26th, 3.18 goals allowed per game), Islanders (28th, 3.23) and Canadiens (20th, 2.91) rank among the worst defensive teams in the NHL, so look to Matt Cooke (2 goals, plus-2 in his past 2 games), Ruslan Fedotenko (1 G, 3 assists, plus-5 in his past 2) and Kris Letang (2 G, 1 A in his past 4) as cheap sources of fantasy production.
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 Henrik Lundqvist -- 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.
Islanders (@CAR, @PIT, PHI, BOS): Three of these opponents are fighting either for playoff spots or playoff seeding, so don't look at this four-game schedule and assume there's much here to get excited about. Besides, there are precious few relevant fantasy options on the Islanders' roster; it's Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit, and that's about it. The only other Islander worth your attention: Frans Nielsen, who has five goals and five assists in his past 10 games skating on Okposo's line.
Lightning (PIT, WAS, @ATL): As with the Islanders, the Lightning are a dreadful fantasy bunch, and playing out the string at this late stage of the season. Case in point: Vincent Lecavalier will sit out the remainder of the season with surgery on his wrist, a decision neither he nor the team might have made had this team been a contender. Martin St. Louis and rookie Steven Stamkos are the only Lightning players worth using this week; plus-minus will be a teamwide problem with the team set to battle the potent Pittsburgh and Washington offenses.
Rangers (MON, PHI, @PHI): I'm just not sold. New coach John Tortorella might have squeezed a little offense out of this team in his first few games at the helm, but in the team's past six games they've totaled 15 goals (2.5 per contest). New York has already dropped two of its past three meetings against Philadelphia, and two of three against Montreal for the season. Wade Redden has one assist in his past seven games, while Markus Naslund has two goals, one assist and a minus-3 rating in his past 13 contests. Don't be surprised if this team misses out on the playoffs.
Sabres (DET, @TOR, @CAR, BOS): This is a heck of a rough schedule for a team that needs a final-week rally just to have a chance at playing beyond this week. Even if the Red Wings and Bruins rest some of their regulars, those offenses are so deep that even extensive minutes for their second-teamers would still classify those as unfavorable matchups. Goalie Ryan Miller has his work cut out for him, not to mention that he's 5-3-2 with a 2.79 GAA and .914 save percentage in his past 10 games, hardly elite fantasy numbers.
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.
• Zach Bogosian, D, Thrashers: He's adapting nicely to life in the NHL, with four goals, three assists and a plus-4 rating in his past 12 games, and is shaping up as a prime keeper-league prospect. But the thing to like about his schedule this week is that he'll play all three of his games at home, against two teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed per game (Capitals, 2.86, 17th; Lightning, 3.18, 26th).
• Nick Foligno, LW, Senators: He has five goals, five assists and a plus-7 rating in his past 14 games, flashing good chemistry with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. That's quite a line assignment for Foligno, whose Senators are scheduled for four games in Week 27, two of them against so-so defensive teams Montreal and Toronto.
• Mikhail Grabovski, C, Maple Leafs: He's in the midst of a hot streak of six goals and nine assists in his past 11 games; he's a streaky performer, and there's no better time to hop on his bandwagon than now. Amazingly, Grabovski remains available in 90 percent of ESPN leagues, but he's a nice final-week addition to round out your lineup.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.