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On tap: The clock is ticking down on the NHL season, and that puts the playoff races under the microscope right now. Don't think that matters for fantasy? That's where you'd be wrong: Teams that clinch early tend to rest regulars a few minutes per night if not for entire games, and ones duking it out for the final entries in either conference tend to bring added passion to the ice. As things stand heading into the games of March 20, eight points separate fourth from 10th place in the East, and 11 separate fifth from 12th in the West. As such, many of my picks put heavy weight on playoff implications.
The grid below details all 30 NHL teams' Week 25 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 25 stat sources:
Blue Jackets (@TB, CGY, @STL, STL): Well lookie here, Columbus actually has a chance to make the playoffs this season. If the Blue Jackets are successful, it would mark their first ever appearance; the Blue Jackets are the only NHL team to have never advanced to the postseason. Ask yourself: Do you think this team isn't going to play with some grit the rest of the way, being so close to tasting the playoffs? This schedule includes must-win games at Tampa Bay and a home-and-home against St. Louis, and it certainly would help if this team beats up on Miikka Kiprusoff and the shaky Flames to make a definitive statement about its playoff chances. Each of these opponents has been inconsistent defensively all season, and that plays extremely well in the favor of the red-hot line of R.J. Umberger (3 goals, 4 assists, plus-3 in his past 6 games), Antoine Vermette (4 G, 3 A, plus-4 in his past 6) and Jakub Voracek (4 A, plus-2 in his past 6).
Canadiens (ATL, TB, BUF): Three home games, and two of them against two of the three worst defensive teams in hockey (Tampa Bay, 28th, 3.17 goals allowed per game; and Atlanta, 29th, 3.37)? Yes, please. It's the kind of schedule that can get these slumping Canadiens -- 2-4-2 in March -- back on track, especially coming off tough recent home affairs against the Devils and Rangers. Remember, the spotlight in that New Jersey game was upon Martin Brodeur, and now, the Canadiens can sit back and deal with life outside the spotlight at home, where they're 21-7-6 for the season. I'm expecting a rebound week for sluggish-of-late skaters Andrei Kostitsyn (scoreless, minus-3 in his past 4 games), Tomas Plekanec (2 goals, minus-3 in his past 7) and Alex Tanguay (1 G, minus-1 in his past 3).
Ducks (@NSH, @COL, EDM, COL): For a team classified as a seller at the trade deadline, Anaheim hasn't performed all that badly since, with a 3-3-0 record. During that time the Ducks have found themselves in nothing but hard-fought, one-goal affairs, the kind of performance that qualifies a team as little more than a matchups play. That being the case, these are cakewalk matchups, the kind that could take a noncontender and actually make it a candidate to squeak in as a No. 7 or 8 seed (check the standings -- it really could happen). Anaheim has already defeated Colorado in each of two meetings this season, and wouldn't you know it, the teams currently occupying those final two playoff seeds in the West are Edmonton and Nashville. By the way, the Avalanche and the Oilers each rank among the 10 worst defensive teams, stacking the deck for Bobby Ryan (3 goals, 3 assists, plus-5 rating in his past 8 games), Teemu Selanne (2 G in his past 4) and Ryan Whitney (3 A, plus-2 in his past 6).
Flyers (NJ, FLA, @NYI, BOS): This is a critical week for the Flyers who, despite sitting pretty at No. 4 in the East, actually have only a four-point lead on the ninth-place-in-the-East Panthers. Not that Philadelphia seems likely to slip out of a playoff spot, but with more games remaining than any of their rivals, the Flyers really need to regard home games against the Devils, Panthers and Bruins as must-wins or at least they need two to land in the win column. This is a good home team: The Flyers have averaged 3.14 goals scored and 2.81 goals allowed per game in Philly, and have actually been outscored (2.62-2.65) on the road this season. Daniel Briere, who has battled groin problems for much of the year, should be bumped back up to a more significant role beginning this week, making him again worth activating. Joffrey Lupul has also been getting it done lately for his fantasy owners (3 goals, 3 assists, plus-6 in his past 6 games).
If you're picking and choosing your matchups, I'd do my best to avoid players from the following four teams. Stud players -- like Jonathan Toews -- 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.
Blackhawks (SJ, NJ, VAN): This schedule presents an offense's complete and utter nightmare. Evgeni Nabokov, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo? No thank you very much! Those goalies are a combined 34-7-5 with a 2.26 goals-against average since the All-Star break, and I'm of the mind that good goaltending can beat a good offense, especially at this key stage of the season. You know to use the elite Chicago skaters, but it's the supporting guys like Martin Havlat (2 assists, minus-3 in his past 6 games), Duncan Keith (3 A, minus-5 in his past 8) and Brent Seabrook (1 goal, 1 A in his past 13) who should take a cozy seat on your bench.
Bruins (@TOR, @PHI): The Bruins are really playing like a team that has eased up since breezing to an Eastern Conference-leading 34-8-5 record at the All-Star break. Since then they're 11-9-5, and have dropped six of their past seven contests against current Eastern playoff teams. What that speaks to is a team slipping into a relaxed pace, perhaps resting up for a certain playoff berth and therefore susceptible to the matchups in terms of fantasy. It's not like you're going to bench a Zdeno Chara or Marc Savard, but in a two-road-game week, you probably don't want kids like David Krejci (1 goal, 3 assists in his past 10 games) or Blake Wheeler (1 G, 1 A in his past 9) or the slumping Milan Lucic (1 A in his past 8) active.
Coyotes (EDM, @SJ): This team has a two-game week, and is in the midst of a miserable funk besides, 5-16-2 since the All-Star break. During that span Phoenix has averaged the fewest goals per game in the league (2.04), and the fifth-most goals allowed per game (3.39). Trading Olli Jokinen appears to have positively killed this offense, and it's not helping that goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is facing a ton of shots per night, leading to a 3.16 GAA in his past 19 games despite a modest .903 save percentage. This is pretty much Shane Doan's team, and beyond that, there isn't a worthwhile fantasy player on the roster. Yes, that includes Ed Jovanovski, who is in the midst of a brutal slump (1 assist, minus-5 in his past 9 games).
Kings (@STL, @DAL, @NSH): Los Angeles has slipped into a funk recently, particularly on the road, where the team has dropped seven of its past nine games. The schedule has been treacherous, yes, but it's not like it's getting any softer this week, as these three games conclude a six-game road swing that began with stops in Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago. There really are only two trustworthy Kings players in road contests this season: Alexander Frolov, who has 14 goals, 10 assists and nine of those points on the power play in 32 road games, and Anze Kopitar, who has 11, 13 and seven in 32 road contests. And by the way, they both struggle in plus/minus in road games, having combined for a minus-19.
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.
• Alexandre Burrows, LW, Canucks: Not only does he bring some much-needed grit to the Sedin line, but Burrows has had a penchant for scoring since receiving his new line assignment in mid-February. He has eight goals in his past nine games, tallying 18 penalty minutes during that span to boot. Chances are he might hang close to a point-per-game with two or three PIMs per night the rest of the way, and in a four-game week such as this, that makes him a must-start in most any fantasy format.
• Matt Lashoff, D, Lightning: This one is a total shot in the dark -- he's fresh up from the AHL and unowned across the board in ESPN leagues -- but I like his ice time through his first two games back from the minors and his role looking forward. Cory Murphy's season-ending injury plopped the power-play quarterback role square in the hands of Lashoff, and in back-to-back games he has skated 20-plus minutes, chipping in two assists Thursday. The Lightning play four games this week and not one comes against a team that resides in the top 10 in the league defensively.
• Mikael Samuelsson, RW, Red Wings: Both Valtteri Filppula and Tomas Holmstrom are nursing injuries and are listed as questionable heading into the week, and Holmstrom's absence in particular has opened up an opportunity for Samuelsson to skate on Detroit's top line. He has two goals, an assists and a plus-2 rating in his past four games, and should pad those numbers in a four-game week.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.