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Friday, November 20, 2009
NHL Forecaster: Holiday traffic

By Sean Allen
ESPN.com

Thanksgiving week is going to provide a bit of a break for fantasy owners -- but not because the NHL lightened the schedule. It's quite the opposite, in fact. A heavy week for the NHL means that those owners who are daily managers and like to tinker with their lineup have fewer choices.

All 30 teams play at least three contests, so there are no teams to avoid based simply on a lack of games played, and 18 teams have a four-game week, which pretty much levels the playing field for owners who like to load up on man-games each week.

So, take this coming week for what it is: an opportunity to set your lineup with your best players and see how you fare. Of course, the Forecaster is still here to break some ties for you, but as fantasy weeks go, they don't get much easier than this. Watch some football, eat some turkey and tune in for an absolutely loaded Wednesday, Friday and Saturday in the NHL, with at least 12 games on each day.

Offensive highlights

Blackhawks should dominate despite tough schedule: This is a prime example of how the Forecaster can provide more insight beyond the surface of a matchup. You might look at the Chicago Blackhawks' week and see both the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, and decide that the week looks like trouble for both offense and defense. Alas, the Hawks have been quite dominant on the road this season, with Cristobal Huet logging a 1.84 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in five starts. Even backup goalie Antti Niemi has a 1.44 GAA and .933 SV% on the road. The offense picks it up while away from Chicago as well. In seven road contests this season, Kris Versteeg has eight points, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp each have seven and Duncan Keith has six. Obviously, seven games is just a snapshot at this point, but the Blackhawks are clearly a team that can get fired up in someone else's building. Considering the third game for the week is against the Anaheim Ducks, who have the third-worst team GAA in the league, it should be a solid week for all your Hawks.

Patrick Kane
Patrick Kane has seven points, three on the power play, and is plus-2 in seven road games this season.
Be wary of Penguins: Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins have the pleasant combination of rating above-average in both offense and defense, you might want to approach with caution. A lot of the statistics that provide that rating were accumulated when the Pens still had a semblance of a defensive core. With Alex Goligoski, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Jay McKee sidelined, the Pens are short four of their top five defensemen. The offense should still chip away and score at a decent clip (they do still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), but overall, fringe players should be avoided as defensive shortcomings could hamper the plus/minus of anyone not named Crosby or Malkin.

Blue Jackets source of offense: The Columbus Blue Jackets not named Rick Nash are finally starting to put the puck in the net with more regularity. Nash has been racking up the points all season, but no one was coming with him. While Nash does have two points in his past three games, his line mates Kristian Huselius and Antoine Vermette outpaced him during that span with a total of nine points between them. It looks like it's finally safe to depend on a Blue Jacket besides simply their star player.

Defensive highlights

Bruins poised for great defensive week: Tim Thomas might only win a couple games in a four-game week for the Boston Bruins, but he'll have spectacular ratios while doing it. The Bruins face the low-scoring St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild to start the week and finish with the modest-scoring New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators. Beyond Thomas, look for the line of David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder to continue to heat up. They have 10 points and a plus-8 between them during the past three games.

Keep riding Rinne: As Pekka Rinne continues to ascend to his rightful place among the league leaders in goaltending, next week should give him quite a boost. With a 1.49 goals-against average during the past four games, Rinne will be tested against the Detroit Red Wings to start the week, but then faces the tapering offense of the Colorado Avalanche, who are a combined minus-37 over their past three games. That is followed by a pair of easier matchups against the Blues and Florida Panthers. Owners in deeper leagues might consider Dan Hamhuis or Cody Franson as a No. 5 or 6 defenseman. Both players are in the pluses during the past seven games.

Don't buy strong Flames rating: Although in my opinion Miikka Kiprusoff should be on the waiver wire in many shallow leagues, I know some of you win-happy fantasy players still use him.

(Begin tangent rant: Who cares if he wins 40 this season if he finishes with a GAA near 3.00! He is literally one step forward -- wins -- and two steps back -- GAA and SV% -- for your team when all is said and done. You have to be so careful with his matchups, he's not worth it. He'll play solid enough to win your confidence and then lay a six-goal egg on your pillow. Not worth it. End tangent rant.)

Next week the Calgary Flames actually come out with a solid rating on defense, but the way three of their opponents have been playing lately -- the Ducks, Blue Jackets and Red Wings -- I'm hesitant to buy the strong indicator. Play it safe and bench Kiprusoff for next week. If you are among the wise and don't use Kipper anyway, consider this a note to avoid Flames who have plus/minus issues such as Daymond Langkow and Nigel Dawes.

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.