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Thursday, April 1, 2010
In the Crease: Riding the hot hand late

By Tim Kavanagh
Special to ESPN.com

For those who have been paying attention to my colleagues around these parts, you might have noticed the rankings lists have gone the way of the electric car: Poof! They're gone. Essentially, for fantasy owners still in the mix to win their leagues, a full set of rankings is less useful at this point of the season than quick start 'em or sit 'em, pick 'em up or drop 'em analysis.

There's another factor here as well. The fine print at the end of advertisements for financial firms usually says something along the lines of "Past performance does not guarantee future results." That's true in our little world, too, because in some places, there are some new faces getting a chance to show what they've got; in other words, the goaltender you've relied on all season might be relinquishing more starts than usual as his team sees what it has in the backup. In addition, certain gentlemen who were total studs earlier this season have crashed to earth with a loud thud.

But there's also an idea in the NHL that a hot goalie is the most important aspect to winning the Stanley Cup. At this point in roto leagues, it's unlikely that another four to six great starts will do much for your ratios, but ground still can be made up in wins. For head-to-head owners in the playoffs, it's even more important to check two factors in recent results: who's playing, and how they're playing. In analyzing those results, one has to take a small leap of faith in defying the fine print above. Being reactive and jumping on the bandwagon of a hot player at this time of the season is encouraged and can be a quite successful strategy. Keep in mind that since these guys might get only a few starts (or as little as one) for your team, checking the remaining schedule is critical. I've made a note in each case whether the remaining schedule is easy, neutral or difficult based on opponents' scoring and shooting averages for the season and the month of March. This is even more crucial for those who are focused only on wins and how these numbers compare to the team in front of each respective 'tender.

Worth a look

Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles Kings: Bernier, 21, was thought at one time to be the team's future at the position, and he's been nearly perfect in two starts thus far: one goal allowed in a shootout win over the Dallas Stars (including stoning all six shootout attempts), and a 34-save shutout against the Nashville Predators. Kings coach Terry Murray has reiterated that Jonathan Quick (only 24 himself and with a shiny new three-year extension as of this fall) is still the No. 1, but Bernier is starting Thursday and could steal more starts down the stretch. The Kings have a neutral schedule in their final six games but scored at only a 2.27 goals-per-game clip in March.

Curtis McElhinney
Curtis McElhinney has filled in nicely for the injured Jonas Hiller.

Curtis McElhinney, Anaheim Ducks: This is really an odd one. McElhinney wasn't too highly regarded when he was with the Calgary Flames, rarely seeing the ice because of workhorse Miikka Kiprusoff ahead of him. But with Jonas Hiller out of commission recently with back spasms and a hip that's "locked up," according to what Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told the Orange County Register, McElhinney has been starting and playing out of his mind: three wins in three starts, five total goals allowed and a .948 save percentage. To see why this is odd, look no further than his career numbers, including a 3.01 GAA and .896 save percentage; maybe he's been more inspired by the beach in Southern California than the Red Mile. Hiller could be back by this weekend, but given the fact that the Ducks are nearly eliminated from playoff contention and the money they've invested in Hiller long term, it's also possible they shut him down to prevent anything serious. The Ducks have a neutral remaining schedule and scored 2.62 goals on average in their March contests.

Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes: It's been a rough season for Ward, but as noted above, we're not interested in his earlier performances. Rather, take a gander at what he's done lately. Ward has allowed just two goals in his past 120 minutes of ice time and has put up a stellar .968 save percentage. Ward might have been dropped in your league, so take a quick look at your waiver wire. The Canes are still technically alive in the playoff hunt, plus they have an easy schedule over the final five games and a middle-of-the-pack 2.73 goals-per-game average in March.

Brian Elliott, Ottawa Senators: He gave up four goals against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, but before then, Elliott had been a revelation, allowing just four goals in his previous four starts total, including two shutouts, to capture NHL first star of the week honors Monday. In a sense, he's needed to be that good, as the Sens have been nearly as fruitless as the Kings on offense recently (2.29 goals per game in March). Here's a bonus: The Senators host the Hurricanes on Thursday, so if you need to do some scouting on either Elliott or Ward for the remaining games, you need to watch only one game. Ottawa has a neutral schedule over the remaining quintet of contests.

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars: Lehtonen is widely available (owned in just 3.3 percent of ESPN leagues) but has become the de facto No. 1 netminder for the Stars, with Marty Turco's career in Dallas set to end this offseason. Lehtonen has looked very sharp in his past three games; he allowed just one goal each in two victories while making 43 saves in a 3-1 loss Monday. Turco did get the start Wednesday, stopping all but one shot fired upon him by the San Jose Sharks; however, the plan, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is for Lehtonen to attempt to play back-to-back games this weekend. Dallas also has a neutral schedule down the stretch.

Don't waste my starts

Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury might still be winning games but also might hurt your ratios.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: With the Penguins fighting for a top-three seed in the playoffs, they've been winning games in spite of some less-than-stellar production from Fleury. To be fair, he has kept them in the game most nights (especially given the Pens' scoring acumen), but for our purposes, he's been a bit of a dud, with a 2.62 GAA and .898 save percentage in March. More importantly, with starts at a premium at this point of the season, you can't waste one on a player who just gave up four goals to the enigmatic Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that has struggled to hit the twine as of late. The Penguins face a tougher-than-average schedule down the stretch, although the team's offense is one of the best. If you need wins only, MAF is an option; otherwise, keep him far away from your active lineup.

Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames: A great start to the season made him a hot commodity through December, but calendar year 2010 hasn't been as great for Kipper. His ratios declined in January and March, and in February he had an embarrassing game on the international stage, relenting four goals on seven shots to Team USA before getting pulled. He's been yanked from the net twice this month, with backup Vesa Toskala going on to have a clean sheet on each occasion. While he gave up just one goal in a win against the Phoenix Coyotes, Kipper is not reliable down the stretch. This is not the time of the season in fantasy to take risks, so he's best avoided. And if you need more proof, the Flames have one of the most difficult schedules down the stretch.

Craig Anderson, Colorado Avalanche: Given what he'd done earlier in the season, Anderson had been given the benefit of the doubt. But now that the stakes are at their highest, it's time to cut him loose in spite of a neutral schedule ahead. Let's see ... in his past eight starts, he's given up 31 goals. Not good. Over the same time period, he has just two wins, also not good. He has zero quality starts and a .874 save percentage over the course of those eight contests. Yikes. Obviously, there's some feeling of gratitude for what Anderson has done this season, both in Colorado and for his fantasy owners. But gratitude and happy feelings don't win fantasy leagues; conversely, numbers like the ones Anderson has put up will lose fantasy leagues. You'd be better off with just about any other goalie in the league for the final few starts.

Tim Kavanagh is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com.