It all comes down to this.
All your hard work throughout the season, all your free-agent pickups, your trades, your starts/sits culminate in this final week to decide your fantasy hockey league championship. Maybe you don't have to sweat out the final seven days, in which case, hats off to you, but more likely than not, someone in your league will make the final week a challenge for you.
I'll go over the highlights for the final Forecaster below, but the postseason push is a factor you need to be aware of that could prevail in many games this week. With some playoff races coming down to the wire, many of this week's games could be life-and-death for NHL clubs hoping to carry on into the playoffs.
In the East, the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Atlanta Thrashers and New York Rangers are fighting for the final three spots. In the West, the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames are fighting not to be to odd one out.
Looking toward the end of the week, there could be some epic matchups depending on how teams fare between now and then. Can you picture the Avalanche and Kings on the final day of the season with the eighth playoff spot on the line? The Flames certainly hope that one comes true. Or how about a home-and-home between the Rangers and Flyers during the final weekend that could determine a playoff spot? You can almost picture the intensity.
I'm not trying to discount the final Saturday-Sunday series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, as both teams are professional and will play a hard game. All I am saying is that with the playoffs on the line, there is a new level of pressure. And with a new level of pressure come players who rise up to meet the challenge.
This doesn't just relate to teams fighting for a playoff spot or battling for seeding. Some of the teams out of the picture have the chance to play spoiler. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, have games against the Flyers, Rangers and Canadiens.
If you buy into this assessment, you'll want to stack your lineup with some players on squads that still have something to play for beyond next week. Patrice Bergeron, Tim Kennedy, Maxim Afinogenov, Raffi Torres, Jason Williams, Paul Gaustad and Dennis Seidenberg leap off the page as players who are (A) on teams with something to play for, (B) relatively hot of late and (C) available in most leagues.
The only team that may end up with no games of any playoff implication next week is the Minnesota Wild. If the Flames fall out of the race by next week, the Wild would square off against the Edmonton Oilers, Flames and Dallas Stars with no consequences for the playoffs.
"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, its performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played and its 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.
Blackhawks to soar: It's a solid run on the schedule for the Chicago Blackhawks to close out the season on a high note. I'm not looking at Patrick Kane here, as he and his one assist and minus-5 rating during the past week can stay out of our business. However, I do expect the Hawks' new top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa to do well. The way you can take advantage is to turn to Andrew Ladd (70 percent owned) as the fourth forward on the power play. Or if you are really feeling lucky, it was actually the Hawks' fourth line that powered their win over the Wild on Wednesday. Tomas Kopecky had his second and third goal in his past three games.
The Hawks have the Stars, St. Louis Blues, Avalanche and Red Wings on the schedule to close out the season. At the very least, the start of the week is pliable for free agents to make an impact.
One final Avalanche: They've lost six of their past seven and are sliding out of the playoff picture. But who cares from a fantasy perspective? The Avs are producing free-agent gold at the moment. After Matt Duchene, we had Chris Stewart, and then we had Peter Mueller. All three are still producing, but could we have yet another young Avalanche on the scene? Kevin Porter has been catching some ice time with Stewart and Paul Stastny lately and has managed a pair of goals and three points in his past four games. Road contests against the Vancouver Canucks and Oilers rate well on the Forecaster to start the week, then after a contest with the Hawks, the Avs could play a do-or-die game against the Kings on Sunday. Porter, T.J. Galiardi or any of the aforementioned names that are available are very good choices for the final week, whether the Avs continue to slide or not.
No Predators allowed: The only team in the NHL with only two games left for next week, the Nashville Predators have not only a slow week but also one that rates terribly on the Forecaster. Games against the Phoenix Coyotes and Blues get only a 2 on offense. Although it has been encouraging to see Steve Sullivan step up and Colin Wilson start to make a name for himself, and it's just kind of weird to see Marcel Goc do something, there isn't much use for any Pred at this point in time given the schedule and forecast.
Ducks' final quack: The Anaheim Ducks are a long shot for the playoff race and actually finish their season against mostly fellow cellar dwellers, but it's a solid week, according to the Forecaster. Games against the Kings and Stars begin the week with a 7 rating on offense, then after a below-average game against the Blues, the Ducks close the season with a 10 rating against the Oilers.
Conveniently enough, the Ducks, who are finding the back of the net lately, are the ones you still can scoop up for free. With Ryan Getzlaf M.I.A., it's Saku Koivu (available in 50 percent of leagues) and Jason Blake (available in 74 percent of leagues) doing the damage. Both players exploded against the Avalanche on Wednesday, and with a continued role as the top line for the Ducks (with Teemu Selanne), they are set up perfectly for such a strong schedule in the final week. Or how about Steve Eminger if you need help on defense? As Scott Niedermayer's defense partner, Eminger had two points and a plus-5 rating in that big game against the Avs.
Tender rookie: Johan Backlund is a Hail Mary choice for fantasy owners, but the Flyers' rookie goaltender looked solid in his NHL debut this past weekend before he tweaked his groin after two periods and left the game. Backlund is expected to be ready to go again for the final week, and it couldn't come soon enough for fantasy owners who watched in horror as Brian Boucher coughed up five goals to the New York Islanders before getting the hook on Thursday. Next week starts with a game against the Maple Leafs and then two against the Rangers. All three contests look decent on the Forecaster for defense. Trouble is, depending on how the playoff push shapes up, there could be a lot of pressure in the final two games for a rookie goaltender. But as I said, Backlund is a Hail Mary.
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.