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On tap: The Devils are in the spotlight this week, as Martin Brodeur has estimated a personal return date of Feb. 26, or Thursday of fantasy Week 21. It'll be interesting to see how they work him back into the lineup, with fill-in Scott Clemmensen having performed like a top-shelf talent all season. Clemmensen is in the midst of yet another hot streak, with a 10-3-0 record, 2.30 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in his past 13 games, so expect the Devils to be patient with their veteran all-time great. New Jersey ranks among my most favorable schedules of Week 21, and with the NHL trade deadline set to arrive six days after Brodeur's estimated return, the spotlight will surely be right between the pipes in the Meadowlands this week.
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 21 schedules. In order to help those of you targeting quantity of games, teams with the most games this week are listed first. Ties are first broken by greater number of home games -- a home game is almost always better than a road one -- and then alphabetically by team.
Quantity might be all well and good for some fantasy owners, but not for all. Quality matters, too, so if you're picking and choosing from individual matchups -- most important in daily leagues or those with caps on games per position -- I'd take a look at the following four teams as strong Week 21 stat sources:
Blackhawks (@NSH, PIT, LA): Here's a great week to load up on players from the No. 3-ranked offense in hockey. Did you know that every one of these opponents has been outscored for the season, and that includes the Penguins? Not one of these teams sports what can be classified an elite defense, and the group has allowed 2.86 goals per game on average since the All-Star break. Sounds like a prime week to activate Martin Havlat (2 goals, 5 assists, plus-7 in his past 3 games), Andrew Ladd (1 G, 1 A, plus-3 in his past 3) and Kris Versteeg (3 G, 3 A in his past 9). Plus, with Nikolai Khabibulin still on the injured list with a lower body injury, Cristobal Huet is a must-start as the team's No. 1 goalie.
Devils (COL, FLA, PHI): As mentioned above, Martin Brodeur could conceivably be back in time for Thursday's game against the Avalanche, in which case he'd stand a great chance at two starts at the very least in Week 21. It'd be good timing for the Devils, who might be able to pawn off valuable chip Scott Clemmensen before next week's trade deadline, though the drawback for fantasy is that the late start to their Week 21 makes both goalies somewhat riskier plays in weekly formats if we don't have official word regarding Brodeur's actual expected return date by Monday. No matter; Clemmensen remains a must-start as a virtual lock for at least one of these games, especially since they're all at home, and regardless of who stands between the pipes, either goalie helps keep the skaters among the safest bets in plus-minus of anyone in the game. Brian Rolston and Travis Zajac both remain available in more than 20 percent of ESPN leagues, but both qualify as must-starts in my book.
Flames (CLS, MIN, TB): Miikka Kiprusoff is 16-5-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .915 save percentage in his past 23 starts, dating back to Dec. 23. Now that's the elite fantasy goalie we all came to know and love in seasons past. "Kipper" stands a great chance at extending that hot spell through Week 21; these three opponents rank 20th (2.69), 25th (2.50) and 25th (2.50) in goals per game and have averaged 2.58 per contest since the All-Star break. He's also 11-2-1 with a 2.55 GAA and .913 save percentage in his past 14 home games, the mark of a top-5 goalie play this week. A couple of sleepers to consider: Matthew Lombardi (3 goals, 4 assists, plus-6 in his past 6 games) and Cory Sarich (1 G, 5 A, plus-7 in his past 7 games).
Stars (SJ, STL, ANA, PIT): There was a time this season when the Stars' chances at a playoff spot out West appeared hopeless; they were 6-10-4 through Nov. 24. No longer. Dallas has ridden a 10-3-0 hot streak to the No. 7 seed in the conference, thanks in large part to the exceptional play of goalie Marty Turco, who has started and recorded a decision in every one of those games while posting a 1.73 GAA and .940 save percentage. By the way, Turco is 13-2-1 with a 1.96 GAA and .925 save percentage in his past 16 home games, making this a standout week's worth of matchups for him and this defense. Red-hot skaters Loui Eriksson (2 goals, 4 assists, plus-3 in his past 4 games) and Jere Lehtinen (5 G, 7 A, plus-3 in his past 13) are worth activating, and for those of you in deeper leagues, rookie Fabian Brunnstrom (3 G, 3 A in his past 6) is starting to show signs of fantasy value.
If you're picking and choosing your matchups, I'd do my best to avoid players from the following four teams. Keep in mind stud players -- like Ryan Getzlaf -- on teams with poor matchups shouldn't normally be benched, but it's worth keeping their schedules in mind if you're deep in high-quality alternatives.
Blue Jackets (@CGY, @EDM, @VAN): While the Blue Jackets are performing like an elite NHL team at home, on the road, they're well below average, with an 11-14-4 record and averages of 2.72 goals scored and 2.93 goals allowed per game. Goalie Steve Mason might be one of the game's brightest stars, but since Jan. 1, he's 5-3-1 with a 2.71 GAA and .911 save percentage in nine games, good but not top-10 fantasy numbers. Not that Mason or skaters like Rich Nash or Kristian Huselius should be benched, and this doesn't condemn Columbus as a playoff team, but fact remains this is a tough time for the team to have to head out to western Canada, a week before it might pick up some necessary reinforcements at the trade deadline.
Ducks (@BUF, @BOS, @DAL): With only days to go before the trade deadline, the Ducks have some difficult decisions to make, and their schedule doesn't bode well for the possibility of their demonstrating they can be legitimate contenders before March 4. The Ducks play games 3, 4 and 5 of a challenging six-game road trip during Week 21, against teams that are performing exceptionally lately, defensively speaking. For instance, Dallas is ranked No. 1 in goals allowed per game since the All-Star break (2.00), and Boston ranks third (2.18). It sure doesn't help that fantasy owners can't tell at all whom to trust between the pipes; since Jan. 1, Jonas Hiller has 11 starts and Jean-Sebastien Giguere 10. The pair has combined for a lackluster 9-11-1 record, 2.78 GAA and .897 save percentage in that time frame.
Lightning (@EDM, @VAN, @CGY): Western Canada road trips aren't generally favorable for East Coast squads, and that's especially true for a team destined to be a seller at the upcoming trade deadline. Rumors are swirling that Vaclav Prospal will be dealt within the next week-plus, and there's at least a decent chance that by the conclusion of Week 21, he'll be gone. In other words, the potential for further thinning-out of this already weak offense makes most Lightning players poor fantasy choices. About the only plus for this team: Steven Stamkos should continue to see his role expand, and that he's coming off a three-goal game this past Tuesday offers some promise for him in the season's final month and a half.
Panthers (@BOS, @NYR, @NJ, @WAS): It's four games, yes, but you couldn't ask for four worse matchups than this. These represent four of the top five teams in the Eastern Conference, and they're also the top four teams in terms of total points accrued in home games, having combined for a 79-27-9 record on their home ice. Worse yet: Not one of these teams ranks lower than 11th in the league in goals allowed per game at home (Devils, 2.57). You can go for quantity like this if you like, but I'd be concerned that the quality will be severely lacking.
For those of you in leagues with daily transactions, I've picked a strong matchup on each side of the puck for each day of the upcoming week. My "defensive choice" doesn't always mean simply "play the goalie"; it means the goalie is a strong pick, but indicates every bit as much that the team will be safe and potentially productive in plus-minus. When possible -- and remember, some days boast fewer games than others -- obvious teams have been avoided in favor of sleeper-type selections.
• Zach Bogosian, D, Thrashers: With Mathieu Schneider now in Montreal, there's a prime opportunity for Atlanta youngsters, specifically in Schneider's former prime role on the power play. Bogosian, the No. 3 pick overall in the 2008 draft, seems most likely to benefit in the coming weeks, as evidenced by his more than 19 minutes of ice time in each of his past three games and three assists, one on the power play, this past Monday. If you're thin on your blue line, the rookie is well worth stashing.
• Troy Brouwer, RW, Blackhawks: With Patrick Sharp due to miss two to three weeks with a knee injury, Brouwer has been getting time in Sharp's spot on the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews line, quite a role for the rookie. Brouwer has averaged close to 18 minutes of ice time in the three games Sharp has missed (17:52 specifically), and tallied one goal and two assists with a plus-3 rating and 12 shots on goal. As noted above, Chicago's schedule is awfully favorable for scoring, so this is a gamble I'd surely take.
• Eric Fehr, RW, Capitals: In a four-game week with three at home, Capitals skaters make for favorable fantasy options, even if their Week 21 includes a tricky trip to Boston on Saturday. Fehr might not be a big-minutes guy, but he's available in nearly every ESPN league, despite the fact that he has six goals and three assists in his past nine games, helping boost his ice time into the 14-minute range. He has warmed to his expanded role in the offense after Chris Clark's season-ending wrist injury and is well worth slotting into one of the back-end spots in your lineup.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.