The NHL remains quite busy as we step into the penultimate Forecaster of the 2009-10 season. A total of 13 teams have a four-game schedule ahead while only one is limited to just two games. That would be the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the break in action couldn't come at a better time. Losers of six of their past eight games, the Pens could use some time to hit reset. Evgeni Malkin is out with a foot injury with no target for a return, Sergei Gonchar missed Wednesday's game with an illness, Sidney Crosby has two points in his past five games, Bill Guerin has one, and Alexei Ponikarovsky leads the team in points over the past week.
Let's hope the slow week is what the team needs to get in gear because the schedule sure does look tantalizing for the Penguins to finish the season. Next week's pair of games on the Forecaster stacks the Pens up nicely against both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers. Both teams can score, but neither is the strongest defensive opponent. Then after a game with the Washington Capitals to start the final week of the season, the Pens finish with two contests against the New York Islanders and one more against the Thrashers. Boy, is this not the time of year for Crosby to go silent.
I don't have the data yet, but I suspect the Penguins are going to have the best offensive rating for the final week of the Forecaster next Friday, so this is your early warning to make sure you have the right free agents for the final rotisserie push or head-to-head championship. Ponikarovsky seems like a natural choice, available in just under half of ESPN leagues. He is getting some time to see if he can acclimatize to Crosby while Malkin is out. The combo could stick. If you firmly believe, as I do, that Sid the Kid will snap out of it soon, then you should also look at Pascal Dupuis, the third member of the line and much more widely available than Poni.
"O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 21 days' statistics, their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, as well as their opponents' numbers in those categories. The Games T / H column lists the team's total number of games played as well as home games (T / H), and lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's matchups.
Red-hot Red Wings: The Detroit Red Wings' second line is en fuego. Henrik Zetterberg is driving both Valtteri Filppula and Todd Bertuzzi into fantasy relevance over the past couple of weeks. Over the past four games specifically, Bertuzzi has five points and is plus-4, while Filppula has eight points and is plus-7. Bertuzzi is available in 86 percent of ESPN leagues while Filppula is available in 93 percent. The coming week starts with two home games against the Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets that rate a nine on the offensive Forecaster. Games against the Nashville Predators and Philadelphia Flyers at the end of the week are also above average. Put Filppula and Big Bert into your lineup immediately if you have someone struggling.
Kings to you: The Los Angeles Kings have a decent seven offensive rating for their four-game week on the Forecaster, but if you break it down, they actually have two eights and a nine being dragged down by a six. Games against the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks should be more than enough to allow fantasy owners to take advantage of the spread-out offense being deployed by coach Terry Murray, even with a tougher contest against the Vancouver Canucks also on the docket. Jarret Stoll, Wayne Simmonds and Brad Richardson top my list of recommendations. Stoll, as the fourth forward on the power play, has been consistently chipping in modest assist totals of late and for those leagues that count power-play points, he is even more valuable. At even strength, he is in a solid situation as well on a line with Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams. Simmonds and Richardson are rounding out a line with Anze Kopitar at the moment, and have both managed to find the score sheet a couple of times over the past week because of it.
Shark bite: Normally fantasy owners can't capitalize on a big Forecaster rating for the San Jose Sharks, but after the team stumbled through a six-game losing skid, coach Todd McLellan has shaken things up. The traditional top six for the Sharks (all six are owned in at least 75 percent of ESPN leagues) have been split among three lines. The results favor Torrey Mitchell as he skates on the top line with Joe Thornton and Ryane Clowe. Mitchell notched a goal and was plus-2 in their first game together. Logan Couture is the next target. With Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi on his line, he is in an equally solid situation, plus Couture has a solid background and the potential skill to be a top-six forward in the future. Maybe he can make good on his current opportunity. If you are curious, the third line consists of Manny Malhotra, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. If you play in a deep league, Malhotra might be worth a look.
What's Fehr is Fehr: An interesting statistic is the often-overlooked production stat. It's a simple division of time on ice by points in order to determine how long a player is on the ice between points. It's a statistic easily paced by Alex Ovechkin, as he does most categories, but what's interesting is to compare the average ice time a player receives to his production. Of the top 50 for production, only one player averages fewer than 15 minutes of ice time per game. It's the Washington Capitals' Eric Fehr, who is 19th in the league for production with his 37 points while playing just over 12 minutes per game. On a line with Eric Belanger and Tomas Fleischmann, Fehr had a five-game point streak snapped on Thursday, but with a Forecaster rating of 10 for the Caps' offense next week, he should get back on his horse.
Don't need a Cristobal to know who's starting: In case it wasn't apparent after he notched two shutouts in a week, Antti Niemi has officially usurped Cristobal Huet as the starting netminder for the Chicago Blackhawks following Huet's seven-goal meltdown Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. As mentioned, Niemi has shown he can provide some solid starts in the past week, but his season numbers are nothing to sneeze at either. The Hawks start with three road games and have a fourth at home for a very full week. The good news is that Niemi has been even better on the road this season, with a 1.90 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Available in almost 70 percent of ESPN leagues, Niemi should be able to help out a lot of fantasy owners.
Vokoun or Clemmensen: It's not the best week for the Florida Panthers on the Forecaster, but Scott Clemmensen has a track record of putting in some hot starts when he gets the opportunity, and Tomas Vokoun has provided an opening. Clemmensen has manned the net for the past two Panthers wins, which are currently bookended by two Vokoun stinkers. The games next week against the Predators and Buffalo Sabres are a bit concerning because of how those two offenses have been behaving, but similarly, the games against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers are not imposing. If Clemmensen can nail down some starts by late next week, definitely consider him.
Forgive Rask: The Boston Bruins have one of the easier schedules next week when looking at the opponent's offense. The Sabres do have the Tim Connolly line rolling and the New Jersey Devils have tons of talent, but games against the Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs won't have as much pressure. I mention this because some Tuukka Rask owners may be a bit sour on him after a pretty large hiccup on Thursday (five goals allowed on only 18 shots). No, I don't think we'll see Tim Thomas for more than a game or two the rest of the season. Rask has more than earned the right to keep his gig and it will take a lot more than five goals to knock him down the depth chart.
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.