Open Ice: Head-to-head playoff advice


We had a look last week at rotisserie scoring leagues, so this week we'll have a look at head-to-head leagues. Most head-to-head leagues either are entering the playoffs or are in their final week of the regular season, so the crucial elimination matchups are either under way or on the horizon. There are a few things I like to bring up as reminders for head-to-head owners at this time of year.

This is where all the history in your ESPN league can help. Even in a head-to-head league, you can see the rotisserie scoring from throughout the season on the standings page. The scoring can be sorted and give you a nice snapshot of how your team stacked up against the rest of the league and, more specifically, your opponent in the playoffs. This is the device you can use to execute some of the other suggestions I have. Learn thy opponents; know them well.

The first thing to do is find out where you can win some categories. Sort through and find your matchup-specific strengths. If you're third overall in goals this season and your opponent is ninth, you know you have a distinct advantage in that category for your playoff matchup, thus you don't necessarily have to cater any free-agent pickups to that area. Don't skimp on the goals unless you have an enormous statistical advantage, but don't knock yourself out trying to chase them if required.

Next, you will want to inspect any categories that look to be close. That is where you will focus your energies when it comes to free-agent pickups or start/sit decisions. Using the previous example where you have a strong advantage in goals, if you and your opponent were quite even in assists and you had to decide between starting Benoit Pouliot or Derek Roy, you would pick Roy in a heartbeat. Pouliot would be extra gravy on your domination in goals, while Roy would offer some much-needed help in a close battle for assists. You don't need to win a category by 10 goals or 10 assists; you need only to win it by one.

That brings me to a riskier proposition when it comes to analyzing the relative assets of you and your opponent: playing to your own weaknesses. Say you have Daniel Carcillo on your team, and despite his penalty minutes, you finished next to last in PIMs while your opponent finished second. Is there any reason at all to start Carcillo during the matchup? His penalty minutes are impressive for an individual, but given the scope of a 20-man fantasy roster, Carcillo isn't going to single-handedly win the day against an opponent that finished in your league's upper echelon. If you don't have the pieces to compete against your opponent in a particular category, focus your efforts where you can compete. Yes, I'm saying it's OK to punt a category for the week if you aren't going to win it. Again, you don't need to win the week by a score of 10-0; you only need to win 6-4. Just be careful not to drop any player someone might scoop up off the waiver wire in the process.

When it comes to your goaltenders, remember to play it safe if you get the opportunity. Because you average between three and six starts to calculate your goaltending ratios, one bad game can destroy your week. You probably have a minimum of three starts of production from your goalies, but if you happen to get three great ones to start the week, don't hesitate to bench your 'tenders for the rest of the week. Goals-against average and save percentage are two out of three goaltending categories, so by winning them, you can secure the small battle as part of the bigger war. Your opponent may march out the goaltenders to lock down wins, but if you can nail down a 1.40 GAA and .990 save percentage (or whatever works for you) early, it's unlikely anyone could catch you.

Grab 'em

Lee Stempniak, RW, Phoenix Coyotes (owned in 14.3 percent of ESPN leagues): If you haven't picked up on the train ride that has been Stempniak since the trade deadline, it's not too late. In nine games since joining the Coyotes from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Stempinak has failed to score a point in just once, tallying 11 points total. Stempniak is skating with Wojtek Wolski and Vernon Fiddler in a combination that is dominating together.

Martin Erat, RW, Nashville Predators (owned in 8.3 percent): Erat has quickly turned a lost fantasy season into something that will look half decent, thanks in part to a fantastic March. The addition of rookie Colin Wilson as a full-time player has given the Preds a second line worth mentioning and enabled Erat to pour it on. With 12 points in 12 games, there is little question, he has something to offer fantasy owners.

Maxim Afinogenov, RW, Atlanta Thrashers (owned in 55.0 percent): After starting his season like a firecracker, Afinogenov cooled down during the winter months, but with the onset of spring, he appears to be livening up again. He has seven points in his past five games and is once again available in many ESPN leagues with his ownership numbers having fallen from the mid-70 range.

Colby Armstrong, RW, Atlanta Thrashers (owned in 0.8 percent): I'm not going to attempt to explain why the line of Armstrong, Jim Slater and Todd White is as hot as it is; I'm just going to state the facts. Armstrong has five points, including four goals, in his past three games; in addition, he's a plus-7 over his past four games. On Saturday, he took six shots on goal, doubling his season-high. Who knows how long the good fortune will last, but see if you can capture some.

Quick hits

Mikael Samuelsson's roller-coaster ride has come to an end. In just a couple of weeks, he went from third line to superstardom with the Sedins to being sidelined for most of the rest of the regular season with an upper-body injury. … With Samuelsson out, Michael Grabner was recalled from the AHL. The speedy winger was placed on the second line with Ryan Kesler and Pavol Demitra. Grabner had five points in nine games early in the season before breaking his ankle. … Paul Martin is back manning the point for the New Jersey Devils' power play. He's available in 41 percent of ESPN leagues. Martin already has a goal and is skating more than 20 minutes a night. It looks as though his forearm is just fine. … Playing on a line with a couple of grinders seems to be working for Chuck Kobasew. He has four goals in his past four games on a line with Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck.

Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is the 2008 and 2009 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hockey Writer of the Year. You can e-mail him here.