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Friday, March 6, 2009
Fantasy Forecaster: The busiest week of the season

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

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Week 23 schedule | Favorable matchups | Unfavorable matchups | Daily picks

On tap: Back to work, slackers, as this is the busiest week of the 2008-09 NHL season. A season-high 104 games are scheduled, and only the Ducks, sellers at the just-passed trade deadline, suffer the misfortune of a two-game week.

Week 23 schedule

The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 23 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.

Stacked! Favorable matchups

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 23 stat sources:

Blues (DAL, SJ, DET, MIN): The Blues remained surprisingly quiet at the trade deadline, but that's a good thing, seeing as they're only a stone's throw from the No. 8 playoff seed and now get a four-game, all-at-home week. Keith Tkachuk, who remained in St. Louis, is a noticeably more productive player at home, with 11 goals, 10 assists and 10 power-play points in 31 games. Patrik Berglund, who has a goal and two assists in his past three games, and Andy McDonald, who has three goals and five assists in his past 11 contests, are also worth starting. And while the schedule might not seem like it suits this defense, it bears noting that goalie Chris Mason is 6-2-1 with a 1.72 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in his past nine games. The Red Wings did recently rough him up, but he warrants consideration as a No. 2 goalie.

Bruins (@CLS, OTT, NYI, @PIT): The Bruins can ill afford to head into the playoffs in this kind of funk, losing nine of their past 12 games, with five of those nine losses at home. This week's schedule, though, provides their bounce-back opportunity, as home games against the Senators and Islanders are about as soft as a matchup can get for an ice-cold team. Adding complementary pieces Mark Recchi and Steve Montador might help breathe some life into the Bruins, and Recchi certainly belongs in fantasy lineups against a schedule like this one. He did have five assists in his final game for the Penguins, after all, and skated on a line with Phil Kessel and Marc Savard in his Boston debut Thursday. Though the trio was held off the score sheet, I'm expecting a standout final month from each.

Canucks (@LA, @ANA, LA, COL): Vancouver is riding high on the stellar goaltending of Roberto Luongo, 11-1-0 with a 2.31 GAA and .915 save percentage in his past 12 games, and that's a hot streak more than likely to continue. Both the Kings and Avalanche rate among the league's 10 weakest offenses, and the Ducks rank in the bottom half. More pluses: Anaheim traded two key members of its checking line at the deadline, while Colorado sports a mediocre defense, meaning scoring shouldn't be a problem for these Canucks, either. Alexandre Burrows has been a sensation on the Sedin twins' first line, with five goals, five assists and a plus-7 rating in his past eight games, and both Pavol Demitra (4 goals, 10 assists in his past 13 games) and Mats Sundin (3 assists in his past 3 games) are must-starts.

Maple Leafs (@OTT, NYI, TB, CGY): The Maple Leafs have absorbed some huge hits in the past week, first losing star defenseman Tomas Kaberle to a hand injury, then trading Nik Antropov at the deadline, and finally shutting down starting goalie Vesa Toskala for the season to have surgery on his hip. Still, this team isn't entirely devoid of talent. They still have more of it than Tuesday's opponent, the Islanders, and a schedule featuring that game, as well as the Senators and Lightning, means you should wait at least another week before writing off Toronto for the year (if you can at all, and I wouldn't). Jason Blake (4 assists in his past 4 games), Pavel Kubina (4 goals, 1 A in his past 4) and Matt Stajan (4 A in his past 4) have offered modest fantasy outputs of late, and can be useful mid- or back-of-your-lineup options.

No, it's a trap! Unfavorable matchups

If you're picking and choosing your matchups, I'd do my best to avoid players from the four teams below. Keep in mind that stud players, such as Chris Pronger, 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.

Coyotes (@DET, @NJ, NSH): A seller at the deadline, Phoenix today is down one of its most talented skaters (Olli Jokinen) and a useful defender (Derek Morris), putting the team further in the hole as it looks to complete a five-game road trip with challenging matchups in Detroit and New Jersey. The Coyotes might have a promising future, with youngsters such as Martin Hanzal, Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris already contributing at the NHL level, but the fact remains that they're down to only one player with more than 40 points, and that's Shane Doan (23 goals, 31 assists). Another thing to consider: Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is a miserable 9-18-2 with a 3.08 GAA and .903 save percentage in 29 road games this season. He's a must-sit.

Ducks (VAN, SJ): As noted above, the Ducks were deadline sellers, and the losses of Travis Moen and Samuel Pahlsson don't do this team any favors defensively. Anaheim has the NHL's only two-game schedule in Week 23, and while they're both home affairs, they come against teams noticeably higher in the Western Conference standings. Not that you can sit either of them, but here's an example of the downside of Ducks skaters: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have a combined three points and a minus-9 rating in Anaheim's past five games. I'd especially take a wait-and-see approach with newest Duck Ryan Whitney.

Islanders (@TOR, @MON, @BOS, @CHI): What's left? With Bill Guerin now in Pittsburgh and Doug Weight on injured reserve, the Islanders as a team are down to Mark Streit, maybe Kyle Okposo when the matchups call for it and … well, that's pretty much it. This is not one of those weeks in which the matchups call for using the up-and-coming Okposo, and that's in spite of the four-game schedule. All of them come on the road against stiff competition, and goalie Yann Danis, in the midst of a mini-hot streak of late, was hammered by the Rangers offense this past Thursday, a rather telling sign that a slump is coming.

Kings (VAN, @VAN, @SJ): The Kings are in a horrific funk, having dropped nine of their past 12 games, getting shut out twice during that stretch. This season, they're 0-3-1 against the Sharks and 0-1-0 against the Canucks, two teams that more than likely can handle them, especially on their home ice. Goalie Jonathan Quick has absorbed much of the blame; he's 2-5-1 with a 3.17 GAA and .889 save percentage in his past nine games and belongs nowhere near a fantasy lineup. Limit your Kings choices to Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar.

Daily picks

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.

Tristan's Three: Week 23 sleepers

Nik Antropov, C, Rangers: The Rangers wouldn't have paid the kind of price they did to acquire Antropov if they didn't plan to showcase him in a prime role, and sure enough, he skated on the second line with Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky in his Rangers debut Thursday. With a fiery new coach and some fresh talent on hand, New York might be primed for a resurgence, and a four-game week seems as good a time as any for it to begin. If Antropov is somehow still available in your league, scoop him up, and if you own him, get him into your active lineup immediately.

Dave Bolland, C, Blackhawks: He has endured a surprisingly productive sophomore campaign, with 15 goals, 24 assists and a plus-22 rating in 62 games, more than enough to be a fantasy matchups option in three-home-game weeks such as this one. In addition, Bolland chipped in a power-play goal March 1, contributing in one aspect of the game in which he had been weak up until that point. You know to use the more prominent Chicago skaters; it's a kid like this who might sneak up on you as a back-of-your-lineup type.

Bill Guerin, RW, Penguins: Another deadline-deal acquisition, Guerin showed good chemistry with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz in his Penguins debut this past Thursday, and that's quite the assignment for the veteran winger. Guerin's fantasy numbers suffered while with the Islanders, but the last time he was dealt to an offensive-minded contender at the deadline, in 2006-07, he rattled off eight goals in 16 games down the stretch. He might not be more than an assists machine this time around working on the Crosby line, but those assists might come in bunches.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.