In the Crease: Neuvirth rising?

As NHL teams continue to fight for playoff positioning with just a handful of games remaining, players on certain teams have a little bit more inspiration when it comes to performing well down the stretch. This was part of the idea behind my colleague Sean Allen highlighting members of the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers within his column this week, with the thought that some of the underowned players on those teams could be nice pickups in fantasy.

The goalies for those teams -- Ryan Miller and Jose Theodore -- would seem to be nice pickups, too, if they weren't already near universal ownership. (And needless to say, if you have them on your roster, they should be starting, but you shouldn't need me to tell you that.) Instead, let's focus on another team fighting for its playoff life right now, with a goalie who is available in 74.5 percent of ESPN leagues.

The Washington Capitals weren't supposed to have much of a timeshare this season. After disappointing playoff runs with Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Theodore in recent campaigns, they acquired Tomas Vokoun this past summer as a potential cure to their goaltending woes. Though Vokoun has, at times, displayed the prowess that made him a household name, his inconsistency has been maddening for Caps fans and his fantasy owners. As Vokoun has struggled with this inconsistency and some nagging injuries here and there, he's been relieved for stretches by Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. As this week got rolling, Vokoun was back on the shelf, officially listed as day to day with a lower-body injury. The injury prevented him from skating on Sunday morning, according to the Washington Post, and the team called Holtby up from the AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa., to take his spot in the short term.

So is it time to grab Neuvirth off of the waiver wire if he's available in your league? Let's take a closer look.

From a season-long perspective, Neuvirth's numbers haven't been great: 11-12-4 with a 2.85 goals-against average and .900 save percentage. But he's been demonstrably better after the calendar flipped to 2012, in a qualitative way when watching him perform as well as a quantitative way on the stats sheet (and the latter is largely a function of the former). In 16 appearances, he's racked up a 2.49 GAA and .913 save percentage. While those numbers are steady, they don't tell the whole story, as Neuvirth has struggled a bit with a bout of inconsistency as of late. In two March appearances as Dr. Jekyll, he's posted a 0.50 GAA and .978 save percentage; the four times this month that Mr. Hyde has been in the crease, the combined ratios have been 4.11/.851.

Nevertheless, at this point of the fantasy season, the rewards for being bold can be great: a head-to-head matchup can be swung by a strong goaltending performance from an unexpected source. The Philadelphia Flyers -- whom Neuvirth held to one goal in a recent loss -- are on the docket this Thursday, followed by the Winnipeg Jets (the NHL's top scoring team in March) and the Minnesota Wild (the NHL's lowest scoring team this month) to close out the week.

If Neuvirth was the only option for Washington, I'd recommend that the risk takers in the audience make the move, while those who are risk-averse should find another option. But the fact that Holtby is a legitimate, NHL-caliber starter complicates things. Though Holtby's stat line wasn't that great on Monday night -- three goals against on 33 shots, for a .909 save percentage -- he did get a notch in the one stat that matters most to the team, the win column. Furthermore, the Saskatchewan native was superb in 2010-11, with a 10-2-2 record, 1.79 GAA and .934 save percentage. The Caps did not just call him up to sit on the end of the bench while Vokoun recovered, and there's a chance that he'll get another start before the veteran is back. "If Holtby's so great, should I pick him up?" you may be asking. Given that he's going to be shipped back down to Hershey once Vokoun has his legs back (and that could be very soon), Holtby is not a player with whom we should concern ourselves right now in fantasy.

Top 40 Goalies

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

1. Jaroslav Halak, StL (2)
2. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (9)
3. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (4)
4. Ryan Miller, Buf (5)
5. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (1)
6. Semyon Varlamov, Col (15)
7. Jonathan Quick, LA (6)
8. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (3)
9. Mike Smith, Pho (7)
10. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (11)
11. Martin Brodeur, NJ (8)
12. Tim Thomas, Bos (10)
13. Jimmy Howard, Det (13)
14. Cam Ward, Car (19)
15. Jonas Hiller, Ana (14)
16. Miikka Kiprusoff, Cgy (20)
17. Michal Neuvirth, Was (22)
18. Roberto Luongo, Van (12)
19. Jose Theodore, Fla (25)
20. Tomas Vokoun, Was (17)
21. Corey Crawford, Chi (39)
22. Ben Bishop, Ott (18)
23. Antti Niemi, SJ (16)
24. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (33)
25. Niklas Backstrom, Min (29)
26. Brian Elliott, StL (21)
27. Cory Schneider, Van (35)
28. Craig Anderson, Ott (30)
29. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (23)
30. Ray Emery, Chi (24)
31. Carey Price, Mon (26)
32. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (27)
33. Steve Mason, Cls (38)
34. Joey MacDonald, Det (31)
35. Jonas Gustavsson, Tor (34)
36. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Col (36)
37. Josh Harding, Min (37)
38. Dustin Tokarski, TB (32)
39. Marty Turco, Bos (40)
40. Sergei Bobrovsky, Phi (NR)

Rising and Falling

As with last week's column, I'm devoting this space to extended thoughts on players who may actually be available on fantasy waiver wires right now. But the rankings list is still reflective of how I project performance for the final weeks of the season, so continue to use that to aid in your start/sit decisions.

Devan Dubnyk, Edmonton Oilers (up nine spots): As Dubnyk has been getting more of the starts for the Oil as the season has worn on, there have certainly been some growing pains. Ratios of 2.38/.912 in nine January appearances were followed by 3.18/.897 over 10 games in February. But taking his most recent 10 appearances as a sample, things are looking good for the Oilers' future in net: He's posted six wins (including two shutouts) while registering a 1.88 GAA and .934 save percentage. The Oilers don't have much to play for -- they're on the cusp of being eliminated from playoff contention -- but they haven't given up, and for fantasy owners who need the boost, Dubnyk (owned in just 27.9 percent of ESPN leagues) makes a great choice.

Cory Schneider, Vancouver Canucks (up eight spots): Allow me to get this out of the way first: I'm not overly concerned with Roberto Luongo's prospects as the NHL playoffs approach and think he'll also continue to do a fine job for the Canucks in future seasons. However, his recent work has been brutal and doubtlessly has swung numerous fantasy teams in the wrong direction. After a 29-save shutout to kick off March, he's given up 16 goals in his next four starts, yielding a 5.28 GAA and .845 save percentage. Enter Schneider (and he actually did replace Luongo in one of those games). The Massachusetts native has been a force all season (when he's had the opportunity), but especially so in recent outings: In his 11 appearances during the 2012 calendar year, he's managed eight wins, with a 1.98 GAA and .936 save percentage. Another factor to consider is that with the Canucks 11 points ahead of both the No. 3 seed Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche (who are second in the Northwest Division), we may be seeing more of Schneider down the stretch. Schneider is currently available in 41.7 percent of ESPN leagues.

Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets (up five spots): Two straight weeks talking about Mason; who could've imagined such a turn of events? After sustaining a laceration in the second period of a win over the Los Angeles Kings on March 8, Mason made his return this past week against the Vancouver Canucks. There was some rust, to be sure, as he allowed four goals on 38 shots, but Mason was solid in a relief appearance on Sunday, turning aside 28 of 29 shots from the Calgary Flames before stoning four straight shootout attempts to seal the win. The reason why Mason entered the game may be even more important as we consider his projections from here on out: Starter Curtis Sanford went out early in the first period with a leg injury and underwent an MRI on Monday, according to the Columbus Dispatch. While Sanford's malady may not be serious, Mason appears to be back in top form health-wise, and though this may be a shock to some in the audience he's been a wall in recent contests. He's posted 1.87/.947 ratios in six March appearances and picked up five wins along the way. Owned in just 19.0 percent of ESPN leagues, the former Calder Trophy winner is worth consideration for the final stretch.


Corey Crawford (94.2 percent ownership in ESPN leagues) and Ray Emery (40.3 percent), Chicago Blackhawks: Just great, another changing of the guard in the Chicago nets. It may have been wishful thinking to hand the No. 1 gig entirely to Emery, and sure enough it appears that there's an argument to be made that Crawford is now the better option for Joel Quenneville's team. After replacing Emery during the first period of the game against the St. Louis Blues this past Tuesday, Crawford stopped all 18 shots he faced in the rest of regulation and overtime before a clean sheet in the shootout. Thereafter, he posted 21 saves (on 22 shots) in a win over Dallas and stopped 16-of-18 in a victory over Washington. For now, Crawford appears to have the upper hand, but there's no need to drop Emery unless the roster spot is absolutely needed. We continue to hear about the jammed schedule over the final few weeks, and that will mean an opportunity for Emery to get some more action, even if he doesn't overtake Crawford entirely.

Craig Anderson (66.1 percent) and Ben Bishop (66.4 percent), Ottawa Senators: With the Sens headed toward the playoffs, their situation in net continues to be in flux. Prospect Robin Lehner got off to a fiery start before crashing back to earth; thereafter, recent trade target Bishop was called up and has tended the net ably. Through six starts, he's gone 3-1-2 with a 2.10 GAA and .915 save percentage. It's no wonder that he's been picked up in nearly two-thirds of ESPN fantasy leagues in this short time. Despite the low number of games remaining, his work can be a boost to a team in any scoring format. However, Anderson appears to be on the verge of returning to game action. After increasing his workload in practice in recent days, the veteran may make his return in one of the Sens' contests this weekend -- either Friday against the Montreal Canadiens or Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, according to the Ottawa Citizen. If all goes well with Anderson's freshly healed finger, I expect he'll get the majority of starts over the final slate of games to get in a rhythm before the playoffs. Bishop will maintain a little value as an occasional starter but is worth dropping if there's a better option available.

Ice Chips

Despite leading the Minnesota Wild in GAA (2.30) and save percentage (.927), Matt Hackett was shipped back to the club's AHL affiliate in Houston, a sign that Niklas Backstrom is close to a return. The Wild have had their troubles scoring goals as of late (as mentioned above, they're dead last in the league in scoring in March), but Backstrom and Josh Harding have a little value for their contribution in the ratio categories. … Last week's cover boy, Dustin Tokarski, had one great start -- saving 33 of 34 shots for a win over the Boston Bruins -- and two bad ones, getting pulled midway through losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. The Lightning signed veteran Sebastien Caron on Monday, and he may steal some starts from the rookie down the stretch; then again, with a career record of 25-47-5 with a 3.45 GAA and .892 save percentage, maybe he's just there for emergencies. Out of any current Lightning option, Tokarski clearly has the most upside, though it remains to be seen how much faith the club has in him for the final stretch.