This is it. This is what it all comes down to. The final week of the NHL regular season is the final week of the fantasy hockey season. It's your last chance to make a decision that could change the final standings in your league.
You know well enough that rotisserie leagues need to be extremely tight before you can actively target a category, but take that extra couple of minutes to dig through the category standings and look for where you may be able to get an edge. Don't forget to also look where you can relax your efforts. If you lead the penalty minutes category by 65 PIM, you no longer need to carry that extra enforcer for the final week and could use the roster spot on something else.
Head-to-head league owners should take that extra time to look at the matchup strengths and weaknesses of their opponent and consider exploiting any of them. Remember, if you play in a 10-category league, you only need to win your head-to-head matchup 6-4 to be considered the fantasy hockey champion. No one remembers the final score, just who the champ is.
If you use weekly settings and you see a specific advantage to your team owning a player who isn't as highly rated in fantasy as another, don't hesitate to make a move. If for some reason you have no tactical need for assists next week but could use goals, it is OK to drop Joe Thornton for Tyler Ennis. There is no next week, so if a player can't help you right now, all bets are off.
The schedule-makers have put no teams at a severe disadvantage for the final week of the season. Twenty teams will play four games during the final week, while 10 teams will play only three games. But usually that one-game difference isn't enough to go out of your way to make a decision. You should just use it to break ties when deciding which player to start in weekly leagues or which free agent to pick up for the scoring period.
There is one anomaly on the schedule that you could use to your advantage, which is that you already know Nathan Horton has a goal and Matt Calvert and James Wisniewski each have an assist. The NHL is replaying the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets game from March 10. That was the game in which Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench. The game is being played over again at a full 60 minutes, but the Blue Jackets' goal from the March 10 game will be a counted stat for the week. Horton is hurting with a lower-body injury, but Calvert is playing minutes on a scoring line with Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky. In deep leagues, you could probably do worse for a pickup than a player you already know has an assist and is playing a four-game schedule that includes an above-average Forecaster rating.
The bottom line here is that you need to pull out every stop to gain that additional foothold in the standings. No time to hold back now. Use the Forecaster, plan your next week and make sure you play this season out to its fullest.
Looking for offense
Nashville Predators: In looking for players to recommend this week, we are using a combination of Forecaster and recent performance. The Preds might not have the best Forecaster rating, but Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen are both available and piling up points of late. Hornqvist is available in 45 percent of ESPN leagues and has posted four goals and four assists in his past seven games. That includes a nine-shot performance last Friday against the Dallas Stars. Playing on the only proven scoring line for the Predators with Mike Fisher and Matt Cullen, Hornqvist should make a push for a 20-goal season after all. Cullen also eight points in the past seven games and is available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues. The Predators don't have an easy schedule by any means, but there is a chance they could catch backup goaltenders in three of the four games thanks to injuries and the standings being settled already in the final days.
Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings are getting Pavel Datsyuk back, but that isn't the opportunity you will find in most fantasy leagues. However, it is the first place you should check as the superstar centerman was dropped in a lot of leagues and remains available in 20 percent of ESPN leagues as of Friday morning. But Tomas Tatar is the one available in almost 80 percent of ESPN leagues, and he is the one busy tearing up the NHL on what can only be considered a quasi-scoring line. Playing with Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan since being separated from Gustav Nyquist, Tatar has continued to put in points. The Wings have games against the Buffalo Sabres and two games against teams that have likely clinched their playoff seeding in the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
Calgary Flames: The Flames continue to look more like a playoff team than a lot of actual playoff teams, but it is still too little, too late. However, it is not too late for fantasy owners to enjoy the spoils. Mike Cammalleri has been scooped up everywhere, but Curtis Glencross and Mikael Backlund are still available to help. Available in 20 percent of ESPN leagues, Backlund is playing on a rock solid scoring line with Cammalleri and Jiri Hudler. He is going through a cold spell this past two weeks, but has been generally on fire for more than a month. His shots on goal remain an indication that points could come fast and furious. Glencross has scored at will since returning from injury. While he plays on a less-impressive line at even strength, he joins Backlund and Cammalleri to form the Flames' top power-play unit. The Flames have four games next week, the final two likely to be against Ondrej Pavelec and Eddie Lack.
Looking for defensemen
Trevor Daley, D, Dallas Stars: Strictly speaking, Daley is only benefiting from sharing the ice with Alex Goligoski. But fantasy owners will take it. Thanks to Goligoski's continued strong finish to the season, Daley has eight points in the past 12 games with a plus-9 rating in the past four games.
Justin Faulk, D, Carolina Hurricanes: Apparently Faulk just likes job security. Since signing a six-year contract last week, Faulk has four points in six games. He is finishing this season the way he will start next season: as the Hurricanes' top fantasy blueliner and an everyday commodity for fantasy owners.
Alec Martinez, D, Los Angeles Kings: He just keeps getting points. Martinez will be an interesting debate target for next year ahead of the season. For now, pick him up and enjoy the fantasy spoils. He has 10 points in the past 11 games.
Looking for goaltenders
Anders Nilsson, G, New York Islanders: The Isles have seemingly settled into a straight rotation with Nilsson and Evgeni Nabokov. Nilsson has been the better netminder lately and catches the better schedule next week if the rotation sticks. You could do worse than a goaltender you know will face the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres.
Anton Khudobin, G, Carolina Hurricanes: He's not available in many leagues anymore (15 percent of ESPN's), but the debate seems to be settled that Khudobin should finish out the season as the Canes' No. 1 goaltender. If you see him available, the Hurricanes are on the Forecaster for an above average defensive week with four games.
James Reimer, G, Toronto Maple Leafs: Jonathan Bernier's injury did not look good on Thursday and Reimer will be available in more than 70 percent of ESPN leagues. His track record isn't great this season, the Leafs have a very winnable schedule for the final three games of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. If Bernier is out for the campaign, look for Reimer to collect at least two wins in the final week. Just know that it could be at the expense of your ratios.
Each week the Fantasy Forecaster will also include some advice for the ESPN Hockey Challenge. This is the salary cap game that allows you free reign over your fantasy hockey decisions within a starting budget of $100 million in fantasy money. For more on the game, click here.
Schedule: It's a fairly balanced schedule for the NHL next week, so your biggest concern should be avoiding teams on cruise control because their playoff seeding is set in stone. That is likely to include the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. That list could also include the Minnesota Wild, who sit a comfortable seventh in the Western Conference, unlikely to climb or fall. As mentioned this week by Victoria Matiash in Line Shifts, you may want to avoid the veterans on these clubs as they could get some rest before the postseason. That goes double for the starting goaltender of the clubs, as Marc-Andre Fleury ($12.0M), Tuukka Rask ($12.5M) and Ryan Miller ($11.4M) could be rested for the playoffs. Instead, look for a goaltender on a team that will be fighting tooth and nail for every point. That could include Jimmy Howard ($10.8M) and Sergei Bobrovsky ($11.6M), who both have four games next week.
Hot streaks: The Dallas Stars have been hot on offense and will be battling for a wild-card spot in the playoffs. Jamie Benn ($9.1M) and Tyler Seguin ($9.0M) are logical starts this week and Alex Goligoski ($6.8M) could be helpful on defense. Down to one line of offense, the Colorado Avalanche should get scoring from Gabriel Landeskog ($8.2M), Nathan MacKinnon ($7.8M) and Paul Stastny ($7.1M) next week.
My roster for next week:
I'm making steady gains now after the terrible start to Segment 2. In the 60.2 percentile with 180 points as of Friday. My salary cap is $106.6 million. Overall for both segments, I am in the 91.5 percentile with 843 points as of Friday.
Jimmy Howard, G, DET - $10.8M
Sergei Bobrovsky, G, CBJ - $11.6M
Alex Pietrangelo, D, STL - $7.5M ($7.6M on market)
Alex Goligoski, D, DAL - $6.8M
Erik Karlsson, D, OTT - $7.7 ($8.2M on market)
James Wisniewski, D, CBJ - $7.2M ($7.5M on market)
Gabriel Landeskog, F, COL - $8.2M
Nathan MacKinnon, F, COL - $7.8M
Claude Giroux, F, PHI - $9.4M ($9.6M on market)
Tyler Seguin, F, DAL - $9.0M
Jamie Benn, F, DAL - $9.1
Ryan Getzlaf, F, ANA - $9.1M