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Week 26 schedule | Favorable matchups | Unfavorable matchups | Daily picks
On tap: Two weeks to go in the NHL season, and the playoff pictures are becoming clearer. The Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Red Wings and Sharks have all clinched playoff spots and aren't far off the point where they might begin resting up for the postseason. The Islanders, Lightning and Thrashers have been eliminated from contention, with the Avalanche, Coyotes, Kings, Maple Leafs and Senators not far from joining them. Among the teams with the most to play for this week: The Blues, Canadiens, Ducks, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators and Rangers.
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 26 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 26 stat sources:
Bruins (TB, OTT, NYR): Only one team in hockey has tallied more points in home games than the Bruins' 56, and that's the Sharks (64). Even having performed like a more ordinary team since the All-Star break, Boston is 8-3-4, which isn't bad. The Lightning (23rd, 2.58 goals per game), Senators (22nd, 2.62) and Rangers (30th, 2.42) all rank among the bottom 10 offenses in hockey, so goalie Tim Thomas should be ready to carry you down the stretch, especially since these games are all spread out with a day's rest between. He's 10-6-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, which qualify as elite fantasy numbers, in his past 18 games.
Canucks (@MIN, ANA, @EDM, COL): The Canucks' playoff spot is presumably safe, but seeding is a critical thing for them, as they've got a shot at the Northwest Division title and therefore the No. 3 spot, as opposed to their current standing at No. 5. Goalie Roberto Luongo is the man who can get them there; he's 17-4-1 with a 2.33 GAA and .917 save percentage in his past 22 games. He's also staring down a schedule that includes four opponents ranked among the bottom half in the league in goals per game (Wild, 24th, 2.50; Ducks, 16th, 2.80; Oilers, 17th, 2.77; and Avalanche, 28th, 2.46). Then Luongo and the Canucks draw the Northwest's No. 1 team, the Flames, to kick off Week 27, so you can be sure he knows he needs to get his team close before that if Vancouver is to overtake Calgary in the standings.
Capitals (NYI, BUF, ATL): No team in hockey has a schedule more favorable than the Capitals' schedule in the final two weeks; their final six opponents are a combined 181-208-56 (.407 winning percentage) and not one ranks in the top eight in the Eastern Conference. This week presents a most attractive set of matchups, as the Capitals spend it all at home, where they're 26-9-2 this season. The Islanders and Thrashers rank in the bottom three in the league defensively (Islanders 28th, 3.23 goals allowed per game; Thrashers 30th, 3.43), so get all your Capitals skaters into the lineup. Brooks Laich has been especially productive at home, with 10 goals, 14 assists and a plus-3 in 37 games and four goals and two assists in his past nine games overall.
Panthers (OTT, ATL, PIT): As mentioned above, the Panthers have as much to play for as anyone, and a three-home-game week presents the perfect time to make a late charge into a playoff spot. Florida is 19-11-7 at home, and has much more challenging matchups in the final week, when Philadelphia and Washington are on the docket. The Panthers know they need to get it done with offense; the Thrashers sport the worst defense in the league (3.43 goals per game allowed) and the Penguins' primary weakness is defense. Expect a big week from David Booth (6 goals, 7 assists in his past 10 games), Cory Stillman (2 G, 1 A in his past 3) and Stephen Weiss (1 G, 4 A in his past 7), as well as your obvious must-starts.
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.
Blues (@CHI, @DET, @DAL): No matter how badly the Blues might like to sneak in the back door of the playoffs, their schedule qualifies unquestionably as treacherous. Counting the March 29 game at Columbus, the Blues play six of their final seven games on the road, and for the season they're 14-17-4 in road games. I'm not saying they can't make a miracle run at the No. 8 seed, but the Blues don't fit the bill as a strong team to draw from in fantasy these next two weeks, especially not this one with stops in Chicago and Detroit on the schedule. Bleagh!
Ducks (@EDM, @VAN, @SJ, SJ): That the Ducks remain in the thick of the playoff race despite taking a firm stance as a seller at the deadline is somewhat remarkable, but that doesn't at all mean they're a lock to make it in. It's the two games against the Sharks late in the week that strike me as troublesome; San Jose has to know that right now it'd draw Anaheim as a playoff opponent, and the Ducks have as much playoff experience as anyone in the league. So if you're expecting the Sharks to "play dead" in those games, think again. Edmonton will also be charged up as the current No. 9 team in the West, and Vancouver has its sights on the No. 3 seed. Rookie Bobby Ryan (1 goal, 2 assists in his past 8 games) and recent acquisition Ryan Whitney (5 A in his past 12) are both in the midst of dreadful funks.
Lightning (@BOS, @NJ, @NYI): The Lightning should really thank the Islanders for being as bad as they are, because without them around Tampa Bay would rank as the worst team in the NHL. That's pretty amazing considering this is Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis' team, but that's what you get when your supporting cast is weak and your defense miserable. Beyond the two stars, rookie Steven Stamkos is the only Lightning player making waves in fantasy; he has four goals, two assists and a plus-1 rating in his past five games.
Rangers (NJ, @CAR, @BOS): New coach John Tortorella has done a fine job turning this team around, leading the Rangers to a 8-4-2 record since he took over on Feb. 23, but this is the kind of schedule that might make him realize that his team, unfortunately, is not the class of the Eastern Conference. The Devils have stomped the Rangers in each of their past three meetings, and road trips to Carolina and Boston don't classify as particularly easy matchups. Tortorella's offensive approach might have players like Nik Antropov, Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev safe fantasy choices regardless of matchup, and he has squeezed some real value out of recent addition Sean Avery, but outside of that, Rangers are risky plays.
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.
• Daniel Briere, C, Flyers: I mentioned him last week as a player to expect a bump up in production from, yet surprisingly, not a huge number of fantasy owners seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. So I'll mention Briere again, as he's getting ever healthier and has scored three goals with three assists in his past four games. The Flyers play a home-and-home series against the Maple Leafs this week, so their schedule is fantasy-friendly.
• Michal Handzus, C, Kings: A streaky type, Handzus has been on a bit more of a hot streak of late, with six goals and three assists in his past 11 games. But it's his schedule that bears mentioning here; he and the Kings battle the slumping Marty Turco and the Stars, then get a home-and-home series against the Coyotes, one of two teams actually ranked behind them in the Western Conference standings. Phoenix, incidentally, has allowed the fourth-most goals per game since the All-Star break (3.35).
• Matthew Lombardi, C, Coyotes: He has fit in rather nicely with his new team, with four goals, four assists and a plus-3 in his past 10 games, yet has barely even been noticed in ESPN fantasy leagues; he's owned in only 2.2 percent of them. The Coyotes play four games this week, including one against the ice-cold Avalanche, and a home-and-home series against the Kings, who have allowed 2.89 goals per game since the All-Star break.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.