In one month we will be awaiting the start of the playoffs and the NHL's regular (and fantasy) season will be over. You feel that pressure? For those of you in rotisserie leagues, it's time to target some categories where you can make up ground. For those of you in head-to-head leagues, it's time to start looking at who your opponents will be and targeting the categories where you think a matchup can be tipped in your favor. Key word for both league types: categories. Let's see who might be available to help you still.
Goals: The Calgary Flames' Curtis Glencross has been particularly keen at putting the puck in the back of the net since returning from a knee injury. He needed two games to find his groove with Olli Jokinen and David Moss before he proceeded to score in five straight games (a streak he is still riding). He's available in 38 percent of ESPN leagues, so the window is closing quickly. If you need to go a little deeper, Jamie McGinn has now settled in post-trade deadline with the Colorado Avalanche. Playing on a line with Paul Stastny and David Jones, McGinn has managed four goals in the past three games. It might not be an anomaly either; he has fired 12 shots on net in that timeframe. McGinn is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, but not for long.
Assists: The Montreal Canadiens' power-play has come alive and Tomas Kaberle has been a key part of it. Conjuring up his playing ability from his Toronto Maple Leafs days, Kaberle has four assists in the past six games (three of them have come on the power play, but we'll get into that later). Available in 63 percent of ESPN leagues, it is unlikely Andrei Markov can supplant him right away (even if his knee does hold up). Up front, there is no reason to continue ignoring the Columbus Blue Jackets' Derick Brassard. Since Rick Nash picked up his game around the trade deadline, Brassard was dragged along with him. Brassard is available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues and assists in five straight games.
Plus/Minus: As brutal as it is to try to target the category, Brooks Orpik is showing a clear trend in plus/minus. He is a plus-15 on the season and plus-14 of that rating has come in the past 12 games. As a bonus, Orpik has four assists in four games since Kris Letang was injured again. Available in 84 percent of ESPN leagues, Orpik is a fine candidate for your blue line.
Penalty minutes: There are a ton of candidates for PIMs, but Patrick Kaleta of the Buffalo Sabres has some secondary qualities that make him a better candidate than most other triple-digit PIMs options. Kaleta has peaked close to 18 minutes of ice time per game, is averaging 14 minutes on the season and has rarely dipped below 13 minutes of late. Compare that to some of the other goon options if you need a boost in PIMs. An honorary mention also goes to Brad Staubitz of the Canadiens due to his flexibility to play either defense or right wing. Staubitz has 97 PIMs in 47 games and 24 PIMs in his last five games. Just watch out because he will burn you on average ice time. The flexibility of his eligibility may be worth it though in deeper leagues.
Average ice time: Target a different category. There are far too many raw numbers built into your average to improve much at this point. Just be protective of this category if you happen to note some of your players trending below average.
Shots on goal: Though Sean Bergenheim's scoring for the Florida Panthers has dropped off for the past five games, his attempts to do so have not. Only Gabriel Landeskog has taken more shots on goal during the past two weeks than Bergenheim. Available in 78 percent of ESPN leagues, Bergenheim had seven goals in February, so there is also the hope he breaks out of his funk and contributes elsewhere. He is still lining up with Stephen Weiss and Mikael Samuelsson on what appears to be the Panthers' top line for the time being. Also shooting the puck more lately is the Washington Capitals' Jason Chimera. The normally defense-first forward has picked up his game since being lined up with Alexander Semin and Mathieu Perreault. He has five points in his past eight games and only trails Landeskog, Bergenheim and Phil Kessel for shots on goal in that time period.
Power-play points: As mentioned in this week's Front Line, Ryan Malone is figuring strongly into the Tampa Bay Lightning's top power-play unit. When that unit includes Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, you know the results can be positive. Malone has six power-play points in the past nine games and is available in 62 percent of ESPN leagues. There is also the aforementioned Kaberle on the Canadiens power-play point.
Goaltending: Where to begin looking at the late crop of goalies with a chance to make some noise due to injuries ahead of them on the depth chart? There is Ben Bishop (available in 81 percent of ESPN leagues) with a 2-0 record and 2.00 goals-against average for the Ottawa Senators in two starts. Matt Hackett (available in 91 percent of ESPN leagues) struggled on Thursday night in relief of an injured Josh Harding, but with Niklas Backstrom also on the shelf, Hackett should have the Minnesota Wild all to himself for a while. With Jimmy Howard still aching for the Detroit Red Wings, Joey MacDonald (available in 43 percent of ESPN leagues) has a chance to win every game he starts. Dustin Tokarski is the Tampa Bay Lightning's goaltender of the future and he has a chance to be the goaltender of the "now" with Mathieu Garon on the shelf. Tokarski had a solid effort in his season debut by taking the Capitals to overtime in a 3-2 loss. Then there is Steve Mason, the winner of four straight starts for the Blue Jackets with a 1.25 goals-against average and a .959 save percentage in that stretch. Mason is available in 86 percent of ESPN leagues.
"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.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs pull a solid Forecaster rating with a game against the Buffalo Sabres, followed by a two-game set with the Ottawa Senators and a contest against the New York Islanders next week. That equals an O:10 on the Forecaster and a chance to confidently rely on your Habs players. The team's power play has come alive with nine power-play goals in the past 10 games. Kaberle, as discussed above, has been a big part of the resurgence for a man-advantage that ranks 28th in the NHL this season. But also of note are the contributions from Lars Eller on the second unit. Eller has four points in four games with two of them coming on the power play.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oil have a four-game schedule at home next week hosting the San Jose Sharks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes. The team has been mixing up its top lines to split up the young dynamic trio of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The result has been fewer overall points for the young threesome, but more points for some of the veterans. Ryan Smyth has six points in 10 games playing on a line with Nugent-Hopkins and Ales Hemsky. Shawn Horcoff is back on the power play with the young trio and has three points in three games with two coming on the man-advantage. For deeper leagues, it may also be worth noting that Nick Schultz has fit in quite well on the blue line since coming from the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline. He has three points in five games.
Vancouver Canucks: It's not that the Canucks have terrible matchups next week, it's that they only have two of them. In an increasingly busy NHL schedule, only the Canucks and Minnesota Wild have the short-stick with two contests next week. The Canucks only take on the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets. Those are two matchups that actually bode quite well for the Canucks scoring, but with just two games, only the elite players should be in your plans. In the case of the Canucks, that still means Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler could be in your plans. Just don't go any deeper than that in the lineup.
Tampa Bay Lightning: With Mathieu Garon on the shelf and Dwayne Roloson not having the best of seasons, Dustin Tokarski enters the mix. The Bolts' goaltender of the future was on an eight-game win streak when he was called up from the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL, where he led the league in that category. In his debut, Tokarski stopped 29 of 32 shots before taking the loss in overtime to the Washington Capitals. The Bolts don't have the best schedule, facing the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and St. Louis Blues next week, but Tokarski is available and starting for a team that is winning more games than they are losing in recent weeks.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Forecaster claims the Leafs schedule next week is only worthy of a D:1, but with road games against the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators and the confidence of the new head coach behind him, Jonas Gustavsson might be a better option that he appears to be. Under Randy Carlyle as the bench boss, Gustavsson is 1-2 with a 3.00 goals-against average, which doesn't sound so hot. But facing the recently-hot Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins hasn't exactly been an easy assignment. Most importantly, Carlyle appears prepared to let Gustavsson have some bad games to get his confidence. What did he do when he was allowed to gain his confidence in January? Why, he went 7-3 with a 2.08 GAA and three shutouts, of course. The base skill set is there, and he is available in most leagues (82 percent of ESPN leagues, to be precise) and is being given a chance. For the truly desperate in net, there is at least a chance for redemption here.
These Winnipeg Jets have been something else lately. Only trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins for goals per game during the past three weeks, it seems few contests can go by now without Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane finding the scoresheet. While the team is top-heavy for scoring, with the four main cogs (Ladd, Wheeler, Kane and Dustin Byfuglien) owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, there is some wiggle room to find value.
Bryan Little should also be owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues when the team is tuned in. Little has had two months this season with double-digit points and is quickly on pace for another, with four points in three games in March. Unfortunately, he is only available in 13 percent of ESPN leagues with the window quickly closing.
Nik Antropov is really only as valuable as the Jets' power play is hot. Before going scoreless in the past two games (along with the Jets' power play), Antropov had three power-play points in two games. The Jets have three games at home next week and easily the best power-play conversion on home ice in the NHL this season (24.8 percent). It might be a lucrative time to give him some work on your roster.
After finishing Segment 1 at the All-Star break in the 95th percentile, I have had a heck of a time hitting the right goalies on the right week in Segment 2 of the Hockey Challenge. I'm down slightly below the 90th percentile for Segment 2 with 209 points. Though I am in the 97th percentile overall this season, I regret missing out on a lot of goaltender points in this second-half of the season. Maybe some better luck this week.
Best bets: Goaltenders have been a problem for me since the All-Star break so let's try a simpler method of choosing them. Jaroslav Halak ($11.4M) has the most wins in the past two weeks and Ryan Miller is right behind him ($11.2M). Wins are what get the points in the Hockey Challenge, so we are leaning on recent play for the goaltender picks. The Montreal Canadiens offer some nice, cheap options on offense and have a four-game schedule to take advantage of. Max Pacioretty ($7.3M) has two-straight two-goal games and should be a staple choice. Looking at just the top players, Claude Giroux ($9.6M) is the only big-game option that has a four-game week on the schedule. If you are looking at the hotness of your players, Eric Staal ($8.9M) had a 12-game point streak snapped on Thursday, but has a four-game schedule to start it back up again next week.
Weekly bargains: Still cheap enough to catch them below true value, Andy McDonald ($6.6M) and Gabriel Landeskog ($6.4M) have been playing great hockey lately. Give Landeskog the edge in making your pick as his Colorado Avalanche have a four-game week.
Rentals: Going with the same theory in net as used above, but going a bit cheaper, Semyon Varlamov ($9.4M) has been winning games at a pace not far back of Halak and Miller during the past couple weeks. If you really need to go cheap on offense, Peter Mueller ($5.0M) has four points in three games.
My roster for next week:
Jaroslav Halak, G ($11.4M)
Semyon Varlamov, G ($9.5M)
Alex Pietrangelo, D ($6.0M / $7.2M on market)
Kevin Shattenkirk, D ($6.4M / $6.8M on market)
Dan Boyle, D ($6.7M / $7.2M on market)
Erik Karlsson, D ($7.8M / $8.3M on market)
Eric Staal, F ($8.9M)
Andy McDonald, F ($6.2M / $6.6M on market)
Evgeni Malkin, F ($8.9M / $10.0M on market)
Claude Giroux, F ($9.6M)
Steven Stamkos, F ($9.5M / $10.5M on market)
Ilya Kovalchuk, F ($8.0M / $9.0M on market)
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 send him a note here or tweet him @seanard with the hashtag #FantasyHockey for a timelier response.