- Sean Allen
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The NHL's Winter Classic and outdoor games already have a strange history of coincidences, and that is in addition to the whole Ty Conklin tradition that will end Jan. 1 in Boston.
Conklin has the strange distinction of being 2-1 in NHL regular season games played outdoors, even though the league has only played three such games in its history. That's right, Conklin had played in all three outdoor games before Friday's contest at Fenway Park. Stranger still is the fact that Conklin was not the starting goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers in 2003, the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 or the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, but Tommy Salo, Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Osgood were all on the shelf at the time of the outdoor event, giving Conklin the start. And that is where we see our first coincidence
The visiting Philadelphia Flyers lost goaltender Ray Emery at the start of the month and will have to start one of their two backups against the Boston Bruins at the Winter Classic. Whether that is Michael Leighton or Brian Boucher will be decided over the next few days with games against the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and New York Rangers leading up to the Classic, and the advantage is certainly in Leighton's court after he snapped a four-game Boucher losing skid with a win over the Tampa Bay Lightning last Wednesday. Either way the Flyers will be starting a backup, and a backup has won two of the three outdoor games.
Furthermore, the Flyers are the visiting team, and the visiting team is 3-0 in the NHL's outdoor games: The Montreal Canadiens won in Edmonton, the Penguins won in Buffalo and the Red Wings won in Chicago. While the Flyers have been dreadful over the past two months, one of their three December wins was a 3-1 victory in Boston on Dec. 14.
So signs may be pointing to a Philadelphia Flyers victory at the Winter Classic, but another coincidence is that the winner of the previous two Winter Classics went on to lose in the Stanley Cup finals: the Penguins in 2008 and Red Wings in 2009. Now, picturing the Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals is almost impossible at this point, as they rank among worst teams in the league. They won't have their goaltender back until late January and are still trying to adjust to a new head coach. How could they possibly use this game as a springboard to the Cup final?
Don't forget the Flyers have a team that, on paper, was clearly a contender before the season. Fantasy owners may be bailing left and right on some of the Flyers, but I think it's time to start loading up ahead of a big turnaround. This is a team that easily finished in the playoff picture last season and didn't lose any big pieces during the offseason. The Flyers added a Norris Trophy defenseman in Chris Pronger, who had played in two of the previous four Stanley Cup finals, and a goaltender in Emery who had also been to the big show. In fact, while Emery was the big question mark for this team, he more than proved that he was capable in October and the early part of November before he was hurt.
Look at what the team has to offer on paper: Mike Richards and Jeff Carter might only be behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when it comes to a one-two punch down the middle. Pronger and assist machine Kimmo Timonen provide plenty of offense from the blue line. Throw in Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn and you have a top four most teams would envy. Danny Briere and Simon Gagne may be on the decline and have injury troubles, but are both still dangerous when healthy. Scott Hartnell and Daniel Carcillo both offer varying degrees of offense to go with their grit. James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux are both dangerous youngsters with plenty of room to grow. Isn't it obvious how this team could supply fantasy goodness? I mean, even with the lousy numbers for the team over the past month, Carter, Richards and Carcillo are in the top 75 on the ESPN Player Rater, with Giroux, Pronger and Hartnell among the top 200.
I don't think it's crazy to call for the Flyers to turn back into a squad full of top fantasy picks. They are a week away from getting over the typical month-long adjustment period to a new head coach. Missing Emery for another month isn't great, but Leighton plus Boucher does equal an NHL-caliber goaltender. So while everyone is relaxing and watching the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, send them some trade offers for their Flyers. This team cannot continue to be as bad as they have been.
"O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's matchups.
Habs on road feast: Tomas Plekanec leads the charge with 10 points in his past four games and 16 over the past 10. He's been shining on the revived Montreal Canadiens power play featuring the recently returned Andrei Markov. Andrei Kostitsyn should be on the top of your free-agent wish list, though his ownership percentage has been creeping up steadily since a promotion to the top line. Marc-Andre Bergeron also remains a power-play specialist, as he is manning the point with Markov on the first unit. The Habs' first three games of the week against the Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers rank as elite on the Forecaster, and you should try to take advantage. As a defensive note for the Habs, look for Jaroslav Halak to have a great week. He has started four straight games, winning all four, including a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, and should keep the starting job for the Canadiens' strong week ahead.
Predators could provide value: The Forecaster doesn't give them a big thumbs-up for the week, but the Nashville Predators have been clicking offensively, with both Martin Erat and Patric Hornqvist doing a lot of the damage. Both players are widely available in ESPN leagues. Erat has nine goals and 16 points in December, while Hornqvist has four goals and eight points over the past two weeks. Strangely enough, both have been playing on different lines for the most part, meaning Jason Arnott, Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont could also provide some points this coming week. The Preds' schedule features games against two teams with "Mason" goaltenders who have struggled of late, the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. The Jackets' Steve Mason has a 3.24 goals-against average in the past two weeks, while the Blues' Chris Mason has posted a 3.23 GAA this month.
Keep riding Hiller: On the season as a whole, the Anaheim Ducks and Jonas Hiller have not been much help to fantasy owners, but Hiller has pieced together some quality numbers in recent days. Make sure you realize that a strong week for the Ducks' goaltender means nothing for the value of the defensemen, as indicated by the fact that over Hiller's strong run, Scott Niedermayer is a minus-6.
King Henrik reigns over Player Rater: The New York Rangers -- in addition to a game with the aforementioned troubled Flyers -- have a home-and-away set with the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes. Henrik Lundqvist is ranked No. 2 on the Player Rater for the past 15 days, and that won't change with this cakewalk schedule for the upcoming week. You can also throw Michal Rozsival or Marc Staal into your lineup for some cheap plus/minus help, as both are a plus-5 over the Rangers' past five contests.
Dean McAmmond is riding high after a line shuffle for the New Jersey Devils has landed him alongside Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. He has seven points in the past seven games. The obvious counter-effect is that Travis Zajac should be riding the pine while the McAmmond experiment continues. Robert Nilsson is enjoying his role playing with Dustin Penner and Shawn Horcoff as the latest attempt by the Edmonton Oilers to fill Ales Hemsky's void. Nilsson has two power-play goals and 10 shots on goal in three games, giving him some specialist value in standard leagues.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and the 2008 Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.