If you're in it to win it, it's time to start thinking about hanging with the less popular kids. As April draws near, there's no better occasion to make fast fantasy friends with your favorite steady, if rarely-used, backup goaltender. This isn't about the secondary option who's rising to the challenge in relief (more on Thomas Greiss and Matt Hackett below), but the talented bench-warmer who regularly sports the No. 2 cap while the top banana remains relatively ripe and at the ready.
At this stage in the fantasy season, particularly in head-to-head leagues, one good outing from a goalie can make the difference between remaining in contention, or packing it in until next fall. Even in tight rotisserie leagues, there's the benefit of padding your "wins" total, as long as you can plug in a body without much sacrifice. Perhaps Carey Price or Semyon Varlamov or Corey Crawford got you this far, but the guy who backs up Tuukka Rask, for example, may help you bring it all home.
Make no mistake, Chad Johnson has been terrific as a stand-in for the Boston Bruins this season. Sporting a 2.04 goals-against average and .925 save percentage though 19 appearances, Johnson has 10 wins and one overtime loss since Dec. 28. He has yet to lose in regulation in 2014. With zero cause to fret whenever they want to give Rask a rest, the Bruins have three back-to-back sets remaining, including a pair of games this coming weekend. Unfortunately, many fantasy owners have recently smartened up, and Johnson is only available in 37 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
More accessible is Antti Raanta of the Chicago Blackhawks. Although Raanta hasn't performed to the same stellar level as Johnson, he's certainly had his shining moments for one of the strongest teams in the leagues. As with the Bruins, the Blackhawks have several back-to-back games left on the regular-season schedule. For instance, if Crawford gets the start against Boston this Thursday (March 27), Raanta is favored to face the Ottawa Senators Friday. And Raanta is owned in only eight percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Another solid option is Alex Stalock, who's owned in 19 percent of leagues. While the San Jose Sharks have fewer back-to-back sets than Boston and Chicago (just the one to end the regular campaign) there's little want or need to ride Antti Niemi hard in the meantime. Comfortably locked into a playoff spot, the Sharks have the luxury of resting Niemi while ensuring their No. 2 netminder remains relatively sharp (just in case). And Stalock's numbers after 16 appearance -- 11 wins, 1.85 goals-against average, .933 save percentage -- inspire a hearty dose of confidence.
Then there's Curtis McElhinney. While the Columbus Blue Jackets don't belong in the same powerhouse category as the Bruins, Blackhawks or Sharks, they continue to fight hard for a berth in the postseason. And Sergei Bobrovsky isn't likely to carry the load on his own. Taking over for an under-the-weather Bob on Tuesday, McElhinney stopped 22 of 23 shots for a clutch 4-2 victory over the Red Wings. Remember, McElhinney was solid in relief of Columbus' No. 1 through most of December, and the Blue Jackets are a stronger team today. If the aforementioned options are already spoken for, McElhinney is owned in less than one percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Other largely available backups deserving of your consideration for spot starts down the stretch include Martin Jones (owned in six percent of ESPN.com leagues) of the Los Angeles Kings, and Jeff Zatkoff (owned in eight percent of leagues) of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Karri Ramo, G, Calgary Flames (owned in 23 percent of ESPN.com leagues): The Flames are playing with the typical feisty, loosey-goosey style of a team completely unburdened by playoff expectations. Perhaps it's a small advantage to being all but mathematically eliminated from the postseason in March (give it a minute). All of coach Bob Hartley's charges seem to be having a great time of it, from Ramo on out. Since returning from an MCL injury, the club's top netminder is 2-1, with a 1.34 goals-against average and .946 save percentage. Who says this unencumbered club can't ride out 2013-14 on a high? If you're willing to gamble with your goaltending, there are far worse starting options out there than Ramo.
Brandon Sutter, C, Pittsburgh Penguins (owned in one percent of ESPN.com leagues): With Evgeni Malkin out with a foot injury, Sutter is poised to center a forward line with James Neal and Jussi Jokinen for, essentially, the remainder of the regular season. It'll be interesting to see what the former first-round draft pick (2007, Carolina) makes of the desirable opportunity.
Mark Stone, RW, Ottawa Senators (owned in 35 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Through two games, Stone has filled in nicely for Bobby Ryan on a Senators forward line with Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris. Now that Ryan is undergoing season-ending sports hernia surgery, the door is wide open for Stone to, theoretically, prolong his point-per-game pace. A scoring standout in the AHL, and junior hockey (Brandon Wheat Kings) before then, the 21-year-old is another prospect you want to keep an eye on for the future.
David Booth, RW, Vancouver Canucks (owned in one percent of ESPN.com leagues): So what if it took him nearly an entire season to warm up? After scoring only five goals in his first 56 games, Booth has three in his last two. More to our interest, playing with a wide variety of linemates, the former 30-goal man (2008-09) looks dynamic and dangerous again out there. Expect Booth to pad his totals further in the next week or two, as the Canucks attempt to scratch and claw their way into the postseason.
Cody Franson, D, Toronto Maple Leafs (owned in 83 percent of ESPN.com leagues): There's word his team's six-game losing skid, and complementary tumbling out of a playoff spot, isn't the only issue bugging Franson these days. TSN's Darren Dreger suggested during an appearance on the network that the offensive defenseman is dealing with a pesky hip issue. This would help explain why Franson has only two assists in his past 16 games. If you're interested in a Leafs defenseman with greater present-day fantasy upside, look to Jake Gardiner (owned in 27 percent of ESPN.com leagues), who has five points in his past five games.
Mike Ribeiro, C, Phoenix Coyotes (owned in 93 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Following a significant string of uncharacteristically fruitless games, Ribeiro was exiled to the press box for Tuesday's tilt with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Coyotes ended up beating Crosby & Co. 3-2. Now Ribeiro is forecast to sit as a healthy scratch again Thursday, versus the New Jersey Devils. Clearly coach Dave Tippett is annoyed. You want nothing to do with Ribeiro until this unproductive storm passes.
Michael Ryder, RW, New Jersey Devils (owned in 40 percent of ESPN.com leagues): He's been banished to the Devils' fourth line, for one thing. And for ample reason: With one goal and four assists since mid-January (22 games), Ryder hasn't been good enough. Go on and drop him.
Sami Vatanen, D, Anaheim Ducks (owned in less than one percent of ESPN.com leagues): Three assists in two games makes for a pleasant return to the bigs for the 22-year-old Finn. However, even with Cam Fowler out until the playoffs, Vatanen figures in as a seventh defenseman. That being said, coach Bruce Boudreau is opting to mix things up, sitting Francois Beauchemin in the most recent game, and Luca Sbisa the previous contest. And when Vatanen does play, he's used in an offensive (read: power play) capacity.
Thomas Greiss, G, Phoenix Coyotes (owned in seven percent of ESPN.com leagues): With No. 1 Mike Smith on the shelf, the goaltending reins in Arizona fall to Greiss. So far, so good, as the Coyotes backup played wonderfully in Tuesday's 3-2 victory over the Penguins. Next up are the Devils Thursday, and the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. Unless Greiss stumbles against the Devils, he should start both. Beyond that, it's difficult to predict how much longer Smith will remain out with his leg injury. We expect to hear more details about the damage -- or lack thereof -- on Friday.
Tomas Jurco, RW, Detroit Red Wings, (owned in less than one percent of ESPN.com leagues): While Justin Abdelkader (leg laceration) and Pavel Datsyuk (knee) continue to recover from their respective injuries, a returning Jurco (ribs) is posed to skate with top-liners Johan Franzen and David Legwand. But the 21-year-old winger only merits fantasy attention in the deepest of leagues.
Matt Hackett, G, Buffalo, (owned in three percent of ESPN.com leagues): It's with a great sense of trepidation that we (mildly) endorse Hackett as a fantasy asset. Sure, he's played well in place of Jhonas Enroth and, okay, a .958 save percentage is pretty spectacular, but two games are only two games, and the Sabres are still the Sabres. Only give Hackett a gander if you're desperate.
Injury and other notes
Not only is Nicklas Backstrom (upper-body injury) reportedly good-to-go against the Bruins this Saturday, but fellow center Mikhail Grabovski hopes to make his anticipated return for the Washington Capitals. Grabovski -- owned in 26 percent of ESPN.com leagues -- has been out with an ankle injury since Feb. 27.