We are really coming down to the stretch run now. All your hard work, all the trades, pickups and roster decisions you have made will culminate in the next three weeks. If you are out of the running for a league championship, there is still plenty of reason to give it your all. Pride aside, your leaguemates will appreciate seeing a competitive spirit down the stretch and when changes are made in your league and new owners want in, there will be no questions about your managerial integrity. Besides, the free-agent pickups you make will definitely have an effect on the running for the championship as the players you take will be unavailable to the owners looking for the money. There is nothing like a little friendly "arrow 'cross the bow" in that respect.
How close are we to the finish? No NHL team has more than 12 games remaining as of Friday morning. Some have as few as nine contests left to play. This actually leads me to the advice I hope to give in a section of each Forecaster as we go forward: Games remaining. If you are making a free-agent pickup for the stretch run right now, it actually makes a significant percentage difference depending on how the NHL schedule makers laid out these final weeks. The Calgary Flames play three-quarters as many games as the Buffalo Sabres as of Friday morning. That means, when weighing the merits of a free agent from either team, you could multiply the value of your Sabres by 1.33 over the Flames.
Teams with 12 games remaining: The Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Colorado Avalanche have the most games remaining. If you are reading this on Saturday morning, remove the Devils from the list. My point here is that players like Brad Boyes or Jakub Voracek may not have been your first choice off the waiver wire, they should receive extra consideration right at this moment because of the extra games.
Aside from Boyes and his new role as an offensive leader with the Sabres, and Voracek's continued presence on the top line with Rick Nash, there are several other players worth considering thanks to the quantity advantage they now hold. Brian Rolston has kept a steady, if unspectacular, pace during the previous two months for the Devils. Jason Blake returned from injury to notch a pair of goals back on a line with Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Grant Clitsome is still not getting the respect he deserves as the main offensive rearguard for the Blue Jackets. David Jones may be the only Avalanche worth owning. And Ville Leino's ownership slipped to make him available in 5 percent of ESPN leagues.
Teams with 10 or fewer games remaining: The Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes all have 10 games left to play as of Friday morning. If you are reading this on Saturday, the Capitals, Coyotes and Canucks join the Calgary Flames as having only nine contests to go. This means some players that have been solid roster adds during recent weeks may not be worth keeping around for the remainder of the season. While I like the resurgence from Mike Knuble in recent weeks and the play of Jason Arnott in a Caps uniform, are nine games from them worth more than 12 from Boyes or Voracek?
Some other bubble players from the teams with limited games remaining could also be downgraded slightly while doing your player assessments. Marcus Johansson may be hot enough to overcome the numbers game, but he may also fall back out of the Caps' top six when Arnott returns healthy. Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin have earned their fantasy stripes this year, but given a handicap of as many as three games, they may not be the best choice for the stretch run. I've been a big Dan Hamhuis fan in recent weeks, but the Canucks may take the pedal off the floor during the remaining few weeks in addition to the fewer games to play. Radim Vrbata, Mikkel Boedker and Eric Belanger have all experienced recent value, but they may not be worth the ups and downs during the remaining Coyotes games. And as great as Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque and Anton Babchuk have been in the second half, the Flames have only nine games remaining and have the most unfriendly fantasy schedule in the final week.
I realize these strategies don't play much into the hands of fantasy owners who like to micromanage in the first place or are pushing up against their games played limits, but it can still be valuable to have that view from afar of the games remaining. I'll include a brief synopsis of this same data for the remaining Forecaster installments.
"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.
A good week for Pens: Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz finally found their groove just in time for a big week. The Pittsburgh Penguins' offense, which has been floundering and unable to find some consistency without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, finally clicked. Kennedy, Staal and Kunitz combined for five goals and nine assists during the past two games. While Staal and Kunitz are in the 90th percentile for ownership in ESPN leagues, Kennedy is widely available. While the Pens don't stand out on the Forecaster for offense next week, the team's strong defensive rating combined with the hot play of the top line should make for some solid outings for fantasy owners.
Anderson back in the saddle: Craig Anderson was blazing hot for the Ottawa Senators since the team acquired him in a goalie swap with the Colorado Avalanche. Then Anderson finally slumped during the past week with four- and five-goal shellackings at the hands of the Sabres and Penguins. While he is currently dealing with a lower-body injury that requires some extra attention on your part this weekend, Anderson is primed to regain his post-trade form next week with a solid Forecaster schedule. The Sens are rated strongly in games against the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Capitals and Atlanta Thrashers. If the lower-body injury persists through the weekend, I might even consider recommending sending out Curtis McElhinney for the games against the Hurricanes and Thrashers.
Flyers just fine: It was looking pretty touch and go for a bit there, but the Flyers (as predicted) are riding high again on offense. Both Mike Richards and Claude Giroux have pushed back to a point-per-game pace during the past two weeks and fellow top-six forwards Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Jeff Carter and Ville Leino have come along willingly. The only real way to exploit this streak, as far as the Flyers' top six is concerned, is the recent slump that brought Leino's ownership numbers down to 95 percent. But with a very strong Forecaster rating on both offense and defense for the week ahead, having a look at the third line might not be a terrible idea. While James van Riemsdyk and Kris Versteeg have been blanked during the past few games, both have a role on the top two power-play units and could surprise during such a strongly rated week ahead.
• It's still not too late for those in the 20 percent of ESPN leagues where he's available to hop aboard the Jamie Benn bandwagon. I've pointed out his play several times here and I will also remind you that the Stars have the best schedule for the final week of the season.
• To spread out the offense, the St. Louis Blues have shuffled Matt D'Agostini back in between Andy McDonald and David Backes. The result has been seven points in his past four games. And don't worry about Chris Stewart, who takes D'Agostini's spot on the man advantage.
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.