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Friday, May 13, 2011
Playoff Hockey Challenge preview: Round 3

By Sean Allen
Special to ESPN.com

It's crunch time. This is your last chance to make up some ground or maintain your lead in the ESPN Playoff Hockey Challenge. Until the puck drops Saturday night on the conference finals, you can make the final adjustments to your roster that will be in effect through the Stanley Cup finals. And yes, that means if your players are eliminated during the conference finals you do not get to replace them for the finals.

That may sound troubling, but is actually good news for most of you, because most of you aren't winning your group (mathematically speaking). This presents an opportunity for those trailing in their pool to go big, while the leaders may be tempted to hedge their bets. Like investing in mutual funds, you are presented the opportunity to build a portfolio for the final two rounds that ranges from aggressive to conservative. Your position in the standings should dictate where on that spectrum you should land. The further back you are from the top, the more aggressive your picks should be.

How do I mean an aggressive profile? Well, popular opinion will have the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks favored to advance to the Stanley Cup final. That may be off base in your opinion (and mine), but they will be the consensus picks for the final. That means an aggressive fantasy player would be wise to roster all Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks players simply because you will be more likely to earn points that your competition does not. A conservative profile for someone leading his or her group would then consist of mostly Canucks and Bruins, with a couple high-profile players from the Bolts and Sharks to cover all bases.

You will have to tailor your approach to your specific circumstances, but as a rule you need to pick players that no one else did to potentially make up ground. Even if you pick all the best possible players for the final two rounds, you won't have made up any ground if your competition picks them, too.

If you are out in front and have a shot at winning the challenge in your group, or even overall, you likely don't need any advice from me. But as a rule for those leading the way, you will want to be picking players you believe 1) will make it through to the Cup final and 2) will be a scoring leader for his respective squad.

Series breakdown

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins versus Tampa Bay Lightning: On paper, there are only four key numbers to focus on: 2.01/.941 and 2.03/.937. Those are Dwayne Roloson's playoff-leading goals-against average and save percentage followed by runner-up Tim Thomas' numbers. The No. 1 and No. 2 goaltender in these playoffs will be the main event for a series that carries little else in the way of rivalry baggage.

The Bruins offer little in the way of offensive stars this postseason. The team's top scorer, Patrice Bergeron ($7.1), is out for at least the first two games of the series with a concussion, which takes out the potential of the team's second-highest scorer, Brad Marchand ($6.2), because the pair are linemates. David Krejci ($9.2) and Nathan Horton ($8.7), both with 10 points, have been respectable but not a huge return on investment to date. However, if you believe the Bruins are the team from the East that will be playing for the Stanley Cup, Krejci and Horton become the best options on offense from the club. Bergeron's concussion is just too dicey to put him in the lineup and hope he returns after two games out.

The Bolts offense has been led by a combination of the first and third lines throughout the postseason. While Martin St. Louis ($11.2) and Vincent Lecavalier ($8.4) are busy doing their usual thing on the top unit, Sean Bergenheim ($5.8) has emerged as an unlikely hero for the club and a great source of cheap points in this fantasy game. Bergenheim's seven goals place him in a tie for the most during the postseason, and with all the other players that match him being eliminated, he will have a shot to move into first place alone. If you are looking for other inexpensive assets from the club, Teddy Purcell ($7.3) has been contributing as St. Louis and Lecavalier's linemate, while Steve Downie ($6.5) has been in on most of Bergenheim's markers. Dominic Moore ($5.8), the third member of the trio with Bergenheim and Downie, has also been matching their output.

On defense, regardless of who you feel will win this series, you probably want to look to the West to find help. Dennis Seidenberg ($6.1) and Eric Brewer ($5.4) each have six points. Andrew Ference ($5.4) has five points, and Zdeno Chara ($7.6) has four. No one else has more than three points from the back end. The Western Conference final boasts six defensemen with more than three points each, including the two leaders who have nine.

Western Conference

Vancouver Canucks versus San Jose Sharks: Both teams have uber-talent on offense that hasn't been leading the charge in the postseason. Both teams have underrated forwards that are killing it this postseason. Both teams have a spotted playoff history during the past several seasons that needs atoning for. The difference might be that the Canucks are well-rested, while the Sharks should be exhausted from almost blowing it against the Detroit Red Wings. That advantage might buy the Canucks a head start for a game or two, but you should anticipate a strong showing between the West's top-two seeds.

The Canucks' rest time has given the hockey world lots of time to reflect on Ryan Kesler's ($8.7) ridiculous second-round series against the Nashville Predators. In six games, he managed 11 points, including 10 in the final four games. While Daniel Sedin ($11.8) and Henrik Sedin ($11.6) have been shut down effectively by opposing defenses, Kesler has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Even when Mikael Samuelsson ($7.7) went down with a leg injury, the Canucks had Christopher Higgins ($5.9) waiting in the wings as an effective clone to play on a line with Kesler and Mason Raymond ($6.3). Higgins, despite playing through a foot injury, makes a nice sleeper pick since Samuelsson is reported to have been "limping quite badly" from his leg ailment.

Like Kesler is doing for the Canucks offense, Ryane Clowe ($8.8) has emerged as the leader for the Sharks in the postseason. Clowe missed Game 6 in the series with the Red Wings but was back with Logan Couture ($8.4) and Dany Heatley ($9.6) for Game 7. His 13 playoff points place him first for the Sharks and in a tie for third in the NHL despite playing fewer games than his teammates. Really, with Couture and Joe Thornton ($8.8) also having decent showings and Heatley, Devin Setoguchi ($7.4) and Joe Pavelski ($9.5) liable to explode at any minute, you have no shortage of choices if you believe the Sharks are headed to the finals.

As mentioned, this series is the one you want to find most of your defenders. Your choice really comes down to who you think takes the series. If you are siding with the Canucks, you will want to make Christian Ehrhoff ($8.2), Alexander Edler ($7.6) and Kevin Bieksa ($5.6) part of your lineup. If you are looking to the Sharks to win, Dan Boyle ($8.5), Ian White ($5,8) and Niclas Wallin ($4.7) should be in your game plan. I'd then mix in the top defender from your pick in the East.

Gut calls and goaltending

The easiest decision (or hardest, depending on how you look at it) to make will be who your goaltender is. Price should not be an issue with the talent pool dwindled so that it will be difficult to spend $100 on players you believe will be in it through to the end. The only thing you have to decide before you pick a goaltender is who will win the Stanley Cup. That is the goaltender that will earn the most points. So make your pick for the winner and then simply take either Thomas ($17.0), Roberto Luongo ($16.9), Antti Niemi ($16.0) or Roloson ($12.8).

My call for the final two rounds: With Roloson basically erasing the one major advantage the Bruins had with his hot play, I'm calling a Lightning upset in the East in five games. In the West, it should be a high-scoring duel with the Canucks emerging victorious through six games. For the Stanley Cup final, I am siding with the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks in a five-game series.

My Lineup

As you can see below, it is my prerogative to swing for the fences with this one. I haven't had much luck through the first two rounds and need to go in unexpected directions to climb beyond the 60th percentile.

This is what you would call an aggressive portfolio. I've cobbled together the Bolts' top line, plus Bergenheim, as well as the Sharks' top contributor, plus a sleeper in Pavelski. My thought is that to win this thing I need to pick against the grain. By avoiding the favored Canucks and relying heavily on the underrated Bolts, I feel I have the best chance to make up ground on my competition.

Even my defense is made up of just Sharks and Lightning, and I chose the red-hot Roloson to defend my crease. I am well under the $100 cap, but there is no rule against underspending.

If the Lightning and the Sharks are eliminated in the conference finals, obviously, I'm done. But then, I wasn't going to win anyway by picking the same players as everybody else.

G: Dwayne Roloson, Lightning ($12.8)
D: Marc-Andre Bergeron, Lightning ($5.9)
D: Ian White, Sharks ($5.8)
D: Eric Brewer, Lightning ($5.4)
D: Dan Boyle, Sharks ($8.5)
F: Vincent Lecavalier, Lightning ($8.4)
F: Martin St. Louis, Lightning ($11.2)
F: Sean Bergenheim, Lightning ($5.8)
F: Teddy Purcell, Lightning ($7.3)
F: Joe Pavelski, Sharks ($9.5)
F: Ryane Clowe, Sharks ($8.8)

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.