In the Crease: Rinne finally emerging

At the season's outset, Pekka Rinne was getting a lot of love from our crew -- we ranked him the No. 4 goalie for 2009-10 during the preseason. It was believed that Rinne would have the Nashville Predators' No. 1 job from the get-go and his performance from 2008-09 (2.38 goals-against average and .917 save percentage) would carry over to this season.

Instead, Rinne struggled a bit out of the gate (including a rough patch in December, with a 3.59 GAA and .887 save percentage in eight starts) and became embroiled in one of the league's most balanced time-shares with Dan Ellis. However, it finally appears that he's emerged as both the leader for the Predators and a viable fantasy option. Too bad it took until March for this to happen, but there's still time left (and next season to think about, especially for keeper leagues).

Last week, Rinne put up the second-longest shutout streak in franchise history. It might not be terribly impressive in a historical context, considering the Predators' 13-season NHL existence, but nearly 150 consecutive minutes of shutout goaltending is nothing to spit at. Rinne combined two shutouts with two other wins to earn the NHL's first star of the week honors Monday.

"That's a heartfelt tale of redemption," you might be thinking, "but this is a fantasy column, not an awards show. What's his deal for the final few weeks?" For those who read last week's column, I've been stealing a page from the Fantasy Forecaster, compiling a set of stats that determine a strength of schedule for goalies from here on out.

The Predators' strength of schedule in their final eight games is a little enigmatic. From a season-long perspective, their remaining opponents are, on average, scoring well below the league mean, but using just March numbers, these same opponents are, on average, scoring well above the mean. The Predators will play the Detroit Red Wings (scoring average up .74 goals per game in March) and St. Louis Blues (increase of .47 goals per game) twice and the Florida Panthers (up .53 goals per game) once.

Going one step deeper, Rinne has done well against the Red Wings in two starts this season, with a 2.00 GAA and .933 save percentage. But that was the "we want to challenge ourselves to make the playoffs by getting in a deep hole in the standings early" version of the Red Wings (back in November and December); the current iteration is rolling over opponents. Against the Blues, Rinne has two good starts and two mediocre ones, but one of the good ones was Sunday.

Based on the schedule, I would be cautious of using Rinne in a head-to-head playoff matchup that uses weekly lineups. For those who can change lineups daily, be aware that there's a game against the suddenly impotent Los Angeles Kings (2.55 goals per game in March) on Tuesday, and be sure he's active. For folks looking to harvest some late wins, the Predators' offense has been heating up as of late (more details in Sean Allen's "Front Line" from Monday), so Rinne is a decent play for you in spite of the tough opponents ahead.

A quick note for keeper leaguers: With no sense of exaggeration, this final octet of games will do much in terms of convincing the franchise whether it should hang on to Ellis as a handcuff to Rinne. Based on this (and what happens this summer with other free agents), Rinne could be one of the elite goaltenders next season. (More starts usually equals more value.) So even if you were a little disappointed with the results in 2009-10 (he's No. 22 on the season-long Player Rater among goalies), there's always next season.

Rising and falling

Top 40 goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN.com standard leagues from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued. ESPN.com standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage. Last week's ranking is indicated in parentheses.

1. Ryan Miller, Buf (1)
2. Martin Brodeur, NJ (2)
3. Tomas Vokoun, Fla (6)
4. Roberto Luongo, Van (3)
5. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (4)
6. Ilya Bryzgalov, Pho (5)
7. Jimmy Howard, Det (8)
8. Jaroslav Halak, Mon (7)
9. Craig Anderson, Col (9)
10. Jose Theodore, Was (10)
11. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (17)
12. Tuukka Rask, Bos (13)
13. Antero Niittymaki, TB (15)
14. Antti Niemi, Chi (18)
15. Evgeni Nabokov, SJ (11)
16. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (16)
17. Niklas Backstrom, Min (12)
18. Jonathan Quick, LA (14)
19. Dwayne Roloson, NYI (26)
20. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (19)
21. Jonas Hiller, Ana (20)
22. Chris Mason, StL (24)
23. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (30)
24. Vesa Toskala, Cgy (32)
25. Cristobal Huet, Chi (25)
26. Manny Legace, Car (27)
27. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (28)
28. Tim Thomas, Bos (23)
29. Cam Ward, Car (39)
30. Pascal Leclaire, Ott (29)
31. Josh Harding, Min (NR)
32. Brian Boucher, Phi (21)
33. Martin Biron, NYI (31)
34. Scott Clemmensen, Fla (NR)
35. Carey Price, Mon (34)
36. Johan Hedberg, Atl (35)
37. Brian Elliott, Ott (36)
38. Steve Mason, Cls (33)
39. Mathieu Garon, Cls (38)
40. Semyon Varlamov, Was (22)

Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers (up three spots): This is a little counterintuitive because Vokoun has been pulled from two of his past three starts and gave up three third-period goals in the other before losing in a shootout, and backup Scott Clemmensen (ah, the 2008-09 memories) has inspired poetry with his play during the past week (just three goals allowed on 74 shots). Based on all of that, one would think to bench Vokoun in this, the most important time of the season. But Panthers coach Peter DeBoer is going back to Vokoun on Thursday, telling the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this week, "Tomas has been our guy all year, and that doesn't change for me."

In addition to that vote of confidence, the Panthers have a bit of a cakewalk during the final stretch, with opponents on the docket who are scoring significantly below the mean. Plus, the Panthers have been one of the hottest teams of late, scoring goals at the sixth-fastest clip in the league this month. We also have a large amount of data on Vokoun suggesting that he is elite and that the past few rough outings were probably just a bump in road. Start him with confidence.

Antero Niittymaki, Tampa Bay Lightning (up two spots): The mysterious Niitty continues to befuddle the hockey world with his inconsistency, but I gave him a little push in his ranking. He gave up eight goals in two starts during the past week, then pulled out an overtime win Tuesday by allowing just two goals on 29 shots. Here's what I know: Mike Smith has been terrible (he's allowed 14 goals in three March starts) and will see the ice only when Niitty needs a rest. As for Niitty, the Lightning still have an attractive schedule down the stretch, and although the team isn't scoring all that much, he can win games almost by himself. He's incredibly risky given the inconsistency, and that inconsistency includes single outings that can either win or lose you a playoff matchup based on the rest of your goaltending stable. He's not for the faint of heart, but he will definitely be a difference-maker from here on out, one way or the other.

Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings (down four spots): Simply put, Quick's main benefit to fantasy hockey owners was in one category: wins. With the Kings' current scoring outage (as mentioned above), those wins become much harder to come by, and his mediocre ratios have gotten worse thanks to some recent rough outings. For the folks in the playoffs, you need a goalie who can contribute across the board, but Quick is not that man. For the roto owner, his one positive attribute hasn't been present. It's best to find another option in both formats.

Dwayne Roloson, New York Islanders (up seven spots): As I noted last week, the Islanders have a favorable schedule from here on out, and that's still true. In addition, it appears as though Martin Biron is being pushed out of the picture, and we all know about Rick DiPietro's latest foray onto the injured list. All this considered, I'm liking Roloson to close the season out strong for the up-and-coming Isles.

Brian Boucher, Philadelphia Flyers (down 11 spots): Last week, I recommended Boucher to anyone in need of a cheap source of wins. He obviously didn't get the memo, as he won only one of four starts. It's true, there's not much of a presence behind him pushing for playing time (Johan Backlund is the latest entrant in the Flyers' goaltending carousel), but now that Jeff Carter is out, the team might have some issues on the offensive end of the ice. In spite of the Flyers' favorable remaining schedule, Boucher is a risky play.


Kari Lehtonen (2.0 percent) and Marty Turco (84.7 percent), Dallas Stars: Lehtonen -- who appears to be "The Man" for the Stars moving into next season -- had a bit of a rude awakening in his first start for Dallas, as six pucks were put past him. Since then, he's righted the ship somewhat, with 10 goals allowed in his past four starts and a .930 save percentage as the icing on the cake. The Stars' remaining schedule is in the fat section of the bell curve looking at both season-long and recent stats. More important to this discussion, it looks as though the team will roll with Lehtonen to ensure it made a smart trade. (He's started four of the past five games.) Given that Dallas is scoring at a 2.92 goals-per-game clip in March, Lehtonen might be a cheap and plentiful source of a few wins for the duration of the season.

Antti Niemi (30.7 percent) and Cristobal Huet (94.3 percent), Chicago Blackhawks: Looking at these two as the top options in net for Chicago heading into the playoffs, it's more like the Blecchh-hawks, right? Cheesy puns aside, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville still has not decided who will be the starter for the playoff run, but he will decide sometime in early April, according to multiple reports. It's never a good sign when neither of a team's goaltenders has taken the reins by late March; if I had to guess, Niemi will win the starting job for the playoffs given the stark contrast statistically, even though he alternated shutouts with four-goals-against outings in his past quartet of starts. On the other hand, Huet does have a little playoff experience, while Niemi has none. As ESPN's E.J. Hradek noted earlier this week, virgin playoff goalies usually don't win Stanley Cups, but there are some exceptions (Patrick Roy and Cam Ward being the two that come most quickly to mind). All that said, Huet will get a start (maybe his last?) Thursday night, and both of these gents are an excellent source of wins for the final stretch. Niemi's ownership percentage is still way too low.

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