In the Crease: Playing the hot hand

Updated: March 27, 2012, 5:52 PM ET
By Tim Kavanagh | Special to ESPN.com

With just a handful of games left on the schedule, we're really into crunch time now, and every start counts for those still alive in their playoff races and at the top of the rotisserie standings. It also happens to be the time of the season when real-life decisions are sometimes made that may fall into the head-scratching category. This is the time when a fantasy owner must be able to make quick, bold decisions based on those situations, in some cases rolling with a relative unknown commodity over a reliable one.

[+] Enlarge Daniel Sedin
Scott Rovak/US PresswireBrian Elliott is suddenly making the most of his newfound playing time.

While neither of the St. Louis Blues' netminders is unknown based upon this season's work, it's possible that you've been relying on Jaroslav Halak over the past few months, and doing pretty well by it. However, over the past week, Brian Elliott has started two of three for the Blues (after just nine combined for the months of January and February). And he's done OK in those starts, as well: No pucks were put past him in regulation or OT in either contest (he lost the first in a shootout to Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings), which gives him a tidy goals-against average of 0.00 and a save percentage of 1.000 over that two-game stretch. He's starting again Tuesday, according to NHL.com, so for all of those who'd benched him because of his lack of usage in recent months, it's time to brush off the mothballs. And for those who must make start/sit decisions on a weekly basis, take a moment to shake an angry fist at the Blues' coaching staff, but then consider options from other teams; it's unclear just who will be in the pipes on a nightly basis for St. Louis from here on out.

While the lesser-used netminders in some time-shares are getting some work as their teams get ready for the playoffs, other teams are using this final stretch to see what they've got in their rising prospects, and sometimes it's not entirely by choice. Such a scenario is playing out with the Washington Capitals. Last week, I noted that with Tomas Vokoun's return potentially days away, Braden Holtby was not worthy of much consideration, as he'd be the odd man out once the veteran was healthy. However, with Vokoun remaining on the shelf, Holtby has taken his opportunity and run with it: In the three starts since his recent call-up (March 18), he's gone 2-0-1, with a 1.30 GAA and .955 save percentage. It's possible that the Caps will be forced to keep three goalies on the roster as the season winds down, and Holtby has value for as long as Vokoun is out; he's simply outperformed Michal Neuvirth in recent outings. In fact, Neuvirth (owned in 27.8 percent of ESPN leagues) can safely be dropped for Holtby (owned in 10.6 percent), and in a pinch, it would not be crazy to even drop Vokoun for the young Saskatchewan native.

Success in any fantasy sport has a lot to do with riding the hot streaks, knowing when to jump on and when to bail. That's especially true at this late juncture, and even moreso amongst goaltenders, possibly the streakiest players on one's fantasy roster. So in the final days ahead, don't be afraid to bench (or even drop) underperforming superstars that might've carried you throughout the season thus far; believe me, they won't be offended. It doesn't matter where you drafted a player last fall, it matters what he's doing (either positively or negatively) for you right now.

Top 40 Goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN Standard Leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Ryan Miller, Buf (4)
2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (3)
3. Jaroslav Halak, StL (1)
4. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (2)
5. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (5)
6. Tim Thomas, Bos (12)
7. Jonathan Quick, LA (7)
8. Mike Smith, Pho (9)
9. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (10)
10. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (8)
11. Roberto Luongo, Van (18)
12. Martin Brodeur, NJ (11)
13. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (24)
14. Semyon Varlamov, Col (6)
15. Brian Elliott, StL (26)
16. Jose Theodore, Fla (19)
17. Cam Ward, Car (14)
18. Jonas Hiller, Ana (15)
19. Jimmy Howard, Det (13)
20. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (16)
21. Craig Anderson, Ott (28)
22. Braden Holtby, Was (NR)
23. Tomas Vokoun, Was (20)
24. Corey Crawford, Chi (21)
25. Antti Niemi, SJ (23)
26. Cory Schneider, Van (27)
27. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (29)
28. Josh Harding, Min (37)
29. Ben Bishop, Ott (22)
30. Ty Conklin, Det (NR)
31. Ray Emery, Chi (30)
32. Niklas Backstrom, Min (25)
33. Carey Price, Mon (31)
34. Matthew Hackett, Min (NR)
35. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (32)
36. Michal Neuvirth, Was (17)
37. Dwayne Roloson, TB (NR)
38. Joey MacDonald, Det (34)
39. James Reimer, Tor (NR)
40. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Col (36)

Rising and Falling

As with columns in recent weeks, I'm devoting this space to extended thoughts on players who may actually be available on fantasy waiver wires right now, as well as players who should be considered for benching or outright dropping. But, there has been considerable movement among the elite options on the rankings list, which is still reflective of how I project performance for the final duration of the season. As a result, that can continue to be used to aid in your start/sit decisions.

Devan Dubnyk, Edmonton Oilers (up 11 spots): He was owned in just 27.9 percent of ESPN leagues when last week's edition of this column ran. That number has jumped to 60.2 percent this week. And what has Dubnyk done over the past seven days? Three wins, a 2.27 GAA and .932 save percentage over three contests. No, the Oilers will not be competing in the playoffs this season, but they've performed well down the stretch nonetheless, and Dubnyk is a sneaky pickup (or, maybe not so sneaky since he's been in this column for the past few weeks) that can deliver the goods for fantasy owners for the duration.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche (down eight spots): After a recent stretch where he looked like one of the best goalies in the league -- including 41 saves on 42 shots at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick's Day that had MSG Network play-by-play man Sam Rosen calling it the best performance by a visiting goalie all season -- Varlamov has had his troubles in the past three contests, going 0-2-1, with 3.34/.891 ratios. The Avs are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt, so the motivation is there, but will the performance live up to that inspiration? Given the uncertainty, it's better to go with a steadier hand in the active lineup at this pivotal time of the season.

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators (up seven spots): After continued hints that he was set to return, Anderson made it back into live action for the first time in a month with Friday's start against the Montreal Canadiens. That outing didn't go so well -- he was pulled during the first period after two quick goals, returning for the final two periods and surrendering another goal in the process -- but his next two appearances went considerably better: He stopped 19 of 20 shots in a little over 30 minutes of work against the Pittsburgh Penguins (picking up a win in relief), and followed that up with a win on Monday night where he stopped 44 of 48 against the Winnipeg Jets. His stats in the three-game split are not very good (3.54 GAA and .912 save percentage), but he will be the man starting the vast majority of Ottawa's remaining contests (if not every single one), and he has the talent to be amongst the best in the league over any given stretch, and he's also available in 22.3 percent of ESPN leagues right now.

Ty Conklin, Detroit Red Wings (debuts at No. 28): Jimmy Howard is hurt (a groin injury has befallen him as of late). Joey MacDonald is hurt (a back problem has kept him on the shelf). Enter Conklin, whose struggles earlier this season as Howard's backup led to his demotion to the AHL. Conklin fought the good fight for the Grand Rapids Griffins (including 2.40/.915 ratios in 12 games), and in three games since his promotion back to the Red Wings, he's gone 2-0-1, with acceptable ratios of 2.63 and .905. Conklin stopped 24 of 26 (.923 save percentage) against the Columbus Blue Jackets in his most recent outing, and they're on the docket again for Wednesday, so this may be a nice opportunity for a spot-start.

Time-shares

Josh Harding (25.2 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Matt Hackett (4.2 percent), Minnesota Wild: No. 1 Niklas Backstrom continues to battle a groin issue -- he hasn't played since March 1 -- which has left the tending of the goal to Harding and Hackett. Recent reports from the Star Tribune have indicated that Backstrom is set to do some limited work in a practice setting, but the Wild have to make an organizational decision in the near future; mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, do they risk a long-term injury with their franchise netminder over the final slate, or shut him down, and let the others continue to share the duties? If they opt for the latter, Harding has provided them with steady production as of late: a 1.30 GAA and .959 save percentage and two wins over his past three starts. But, he's also set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, so there's reason to think that they might want to see what they've got in Hackett, who could be the primary backup to Backstrom in 2012-13. While we can continue to speculate over these potential scenarios, from a fantasy perspective, Harding is the best choice. He's shown a proclivity this season for producing great starts in bunches, and it would appear he's on one of those hot streaks again. As noted above, finding (and activating) such players at this point of the season is crucial.

Ice Chips

Four goals allowed on 14 shots to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night? Somewhat disconcerting for Ilya Bryzgalov's fantasy owners. Finishing a stretch where he's started 19 of 20 games for the Philadelphia Flyers? A bit more disconcerting. The fact that Bryz was walking with a noticeable limp in the locker room after the game (according to the Philadelphia Inquirer)? Now the concern is definitely mounting. With the Flyers' berth in the playoffs ensured -- and a viable backup in Sergei Bobrovsky on hand -- we may see less of Bryzgalov over the final stretch based upon the latter two factors noted above. Prepare another option if you've been riding his latest hot streak. … After a largely forgettable season -- or perhaps unforgettable, for the wrong reasons -- Dwayne Roloson has seemingly taken control of the Tampa Bay Lightning crease as the season winds down. However, just because a player is a starter in real life, that doesn't mean he deserves consideration in fantasy: Appearing in the past eight games for Tampa Bay, the veteran has allowed 27 goals in that stretch, generating a 3.89 GAA and .886 save percentage. Do not bother. … Johan Hedberg has been used very infrequently as of late, but all three of his starts in the month of March have been stellar: He's posted 23- and 34-save shutouts of the Capitals and Senators, respectively, and he allowed just one goal to the New York Islanders in a win in between. It remains to be seen just how much more time he gets, but when he does get the nod, he's worth a spot-start.

Tim Kavanagh

Fantasy and Insider
Tim Kavanagh is an associate editor for ESPN Fantasy and Insider, with specific responsibility for NHL and fantasy hockey coverage in addition to other sports.

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