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Team-by-team look at how to approach NHL playoff fantasy action

How many members of the Tampa Bay Lightning should you have on your fantasy hockey postseason roster? Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

You think there is variety in season-long fantasy hockey formats? Not by comparison with the plethora of playoff pools available, there isn't. From salary-cap leagues, to GAP formats, to player-pool picks, to straight drafts or auctions, there are more quirky and one-off types of playoff fantasy pools available than we could dare list here. However, though the formats vary, there are some hard-and-fast rules that will apply to most of these postseason endeavors. Not to put too fine a point on it, the biggest rule can be boiled down to simply picking the scorers from the winning teams.

It may sound easy, but it's not always that simple.

Last season was an example of just how straightforward this can sometimes be when it comes to picking among the scorers. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom were the most obvious choices from the Washington Capitals, so if you liked this squad to make a run for the Stanley Cup, these would have been no-brainer selections for your squad. In fact, they finished one-two-three in scoring (Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Backstrom) and that was that.

Yet, that was about the only predictable aspect. The run by the Vegas Golden Knights was impressive and pushed Reilly Smith to finish fourth in scoring. Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby exploded together for 21 points each in just 12 games to finish tied for fifth, even though the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't escape the second round. Despite being a fantasy trainwreck in the regular season, Braden Holtby ended up with the most wins (16) and posted two shutouts, while Marc-Andre Fleury was right behind him in scoring with 13 wins and four shutouts.

So, with uncertainty still likely to come into play, there is a general strategy to fall back on:

  • You want players from the teams that will advance the furthest. This is pretty obvious, as more games played equals more points. Of the 36 players that scored more than 10 points during last season's playoffs, only 12 were not on teams that made the conference finals.

  • In most formats, goaltenders will earn the most points. This is, of course, assuming most teams will ride one goaltender through the playoffs. The Fleury/Matt Murray show we saw for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their back-to-back Stanley Cups has been the exception, not the rule. The goalie that wins it all will probably get 16 wins and a couple of shutouts sprinkled in. If your league awards two points per win, that's already more points than the top-scoring skater of the playoffs is probably going to get. Evgeni Malkin's 36 points in 2008-09 is the only example from the past 10 years of a player eclipsing 32 points.

  • All your eggs should be in a minimal number of baskets. Pick your teams that you think will go far and take players from those teams. Sean Couturier and Mitch Marner both scored better than a point-per-game during the playoffs last year, but that doesn't help you much if they don't get out of the first round.

  • The bigger your pool, the more contrarian you need to be. This is the same approach you take for daily fantasy sports, as the more opponents you are facing in your pool will usually translate into more of the same lineup decisions. If you are in a pool with 10 of your co-workers, go ahead and stack the top teams and pick all the superstars. There should be enough variety among only 10 teams. However, if your friend runs a playoff pool with 50-100 entries, all of a sudden you need to zig a little while everyone else is zagging to have a chance at winning. You don't want to go completely contrarian, but a couple of sleeper picks will be needed to separate you from the pack. Taking part in an online pool with thousands of entries? You may need to predict something like a Colorado Avalanche-Columbus Blue Jackets final -- and be right -- in order to win the crown.

Sean Allen and Victoria Matiash have "filled out their brackets" and have compiled a quick team-by-team breakdown heading into the postseason to remind you of the top lines, power plays and goaltending situations. The teams below are listed by conference, in order of how far our experts think they'll go.


Sean Allen's look at the Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning

As chalky as they'll be, we have little choice but to list the Lightning as the odds-on favorite to advance to the Stanley Cup out of the powerhouse Eastern Conference. They tied the NHL record with 62 wins, after all, and Nikita Kucherov recorded the most points in a season since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr back in 1995-96. The Lightning weren't married to any scoring-line combinations this season, but the most frequent combination for Kucherov included Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point. The most frequent linemates for Steven Stamkos included Yanni Gourde and Ondrej Palat.

J.T. Miller is also in the mix here, as he was the most frequent late-season addition to the power play alongside Kucherov, Stamkos, Point and Victor Hedman. Hedman, by the way, is recovering from an upper-body injury that may or may not be a concussion, but he is hopeful be on the ice for the start of the playoffs. For what it's worth, Andrei Vasilevskiy dominated the Blue Jackets this season with a 3-0 record, a .971 save percentage and one shutout.

New York Islanders

My bracket has coach Barry Trotz getting his revenge in the second round of the playoffs by defeating the team for whom he won the cup last season. That said, I'm predicting the Islanders to advance on the back of their William M. Jennings Trophy-winning goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, not on the back of their scoring prowess.

The Golden Knights moved through the playoffs last season with 2.85 goals-for per game and 2.35 goals-against per game, which is a similar formula for these Islanders. That said, I'll still have a combination of Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee sprinkled around my cheat sheets. I prefer Nelson and Bailey, who showed consistency through the season, whereas Barzal and Lee fell off down the stretch. Both Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock are sleepers on the point for the power play.

Toronto Maple Leafs

I have the Maple Leafs down as emerging from a seven-game offensive battle with the Boston Bruins that should help them pile up some points before bowing out to the Lightning in the second round. The studs here are obvious, with John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Marner all destined to get their share of tallies, while Morgan Rielly contributes from the point. Zach Hyman is the locked-in secondary piece, as a mainstay with Tavares and Marner.

However, Matthews' linemates have rotated a bit. Andreas Johnsson has been his most frequent winger of late, with William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen trading out on the other side. I like the win potential for Frederik Andersen, but I can foresee poor ratios, no shutouts and a small, but looming risk that a backup gets a start or two.

Washington Capitals

I'm steering away from a repeat from the Capitals, because I just don't think the goaltending can get them past two rounds. Last season, Holtby shook off a terrible second-half to shoulder the Capitals to the Stanley Cup. This season, he hasn't inspired any more confidence than he had at this point last year. While he managed to finish eighth in wins, Holtby ranked 31st in the NHL in save percentage and 28th in GAA.

Keep in mind that Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov and John Carlson can still net a lot of points in two rounds. If you have the Capitals pegged to go further than I do, these four are the top-heavy drivers of this offense. Jakub Vrana got better as the year progressed, Tom Wilson has some sleeper value as a member of the top line, and Brett Connolly is a darkhorse candidate for a big postseason. Connolly's even-strength points-per-60 minutes ranked in the top 40 of the NHL, right behind Evgeni Malkin and ahead of players like Nathan MacKinnon, Blake Wheeler and Kuznetsov.

Boston Bruins

Quoting from this same article last season: "If you are in on the Bruins, the choices are obvious. The trio of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand is a formidable one, with Torey Krug a dominant choice on defense. For secondary scoring, David Krejci is always a playoff threat, having twice already led the league in scoring for the playoffs. That makes Ryan Donato an especially good sleeper, as he gets the best of both worlds. Donato plays with Krejci at even strength and on the power play with the top line. Tuukka Rask is always a good choice in the playoffs when the Bruins are primed for run. He has 53 games of playoff experience with a .928 save percentage."

Swap in Jake DeBrusk for Donato and update Rask's stats to 65 games and a .924 save percentage, and the outlook remains exactly the same.

Carolina Hurricanes

The NHL's "Corsi darlings" this season took the crown in shot attempts, so puck possession will be a strong suit. It's also why I could see them pushing the Capitals to the brink in the first round. On the other hand, Capitals goaltender Holtby was a disaster against some of the other playoff teams this season, but handled the Hurricanes quite competently with a 4-0 record and a .918 save percentage. While I have the Hurricanes bowing out in the first round, a longer run could crown some fantasy kings in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. They finished the season with 83 and 76 points, respectively, while the next Hurricane was Justin Williams, way back at 53 points.

That said, the arrival of Nino Niederreiter in a mid-season trade allowed the team to have two lines instead of one, and Niederreiter had 30 points in 36 games as a Hurricane. He'll play with Williams and Aho at even strength, while also joining Aho, Teravainen, Williams and Justin Faulk on the power play. The second line features Jordan Staal, Teravainen and either Micheal Ferland or rookie Andrei Svechnikov. Ferland had more value through the season, but Svechnikov finished stronger. Finally, there is the enigma of Dougie Hamilton, who scored a career-high 18 goals, but a career-low (for a full season) 39 points.

Pittsburgh Penguins

I didn't mean to bump the Penguins out of my bracket in the first round and, obviously, they have the talent to go much further than this. I guess I just liked the Islanders a bit more. Crosby still finished with 100 points this season, and he helped fueled Guentzel to 40 goals. The power play was a source of dominance once again, which includes Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Malkin.

Did you even notice, though, that Kessel had a point-per-game this season but was minus-19? Malkin was minus-25, despite scoring 72 points in 68 games. Outside of their top five (Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin, Letang and Kessel), no Pittsburgh player had more than 18 goals or 37 points. Goaltender Murray has made a name for himself in the postseason, posting a 28-15 playoff record with a .923 save percentage over his first three seasons.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The team went "all-in" and eked out a playoff spot, only to be slapped in the face with a matchup against the Lightning. Sergei Bobrovsky started two games against Tampa Bay this season and the Blue Jackets lost those contests by a combined score of 12-2. Did backup Joonas Korpisalo fare any better? Nope. He lost his start against the Lightning, 5-1. If you are in on the Blue Jackets as a contrarian pick to make some noise, Artemi Panarin drives the offensive bus. He was most recently back on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. The trio was solid before the trade deadline, but the lines were in flux after the arrival of Matt Duchene. With the dust settled, it appears they are the top line again heading into the playoffs.

That said, coach John Tortorella did a lot of tinkering as the postseason approached, so I wouldn't bet on any specific combination. Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno and Josh Anderson were a very successful trio this season and would be my sleeper pick on a sleeper team to lead a monumental upset -- you know, if I had to pick one in this matchup, which I don't want to do. Defenseman Seth Jones faded down the stretch after a hot start, while Zach Werenski kind of did the opposite. I'd split the difference and look at them evenly entering the postseason.


Victoria Matiash's look at the Western Conference

Calgary Flames

Finishing with 107 points, the Flames get the relative comfort of facing a banged-up Avalanche club before a showdown with either the Sharks or Golden Knights. Even in the tight, well-balanced West, I'm inclined to favor Calgary for the conference final, led by steady fantasy favorites Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm. With the second line -- Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Michael Frolik -- tasked with suffocating Nathan MacKinnon and Co., that Flames' top unit could put up some serious numbers.

Defenseman Mark Giordano is top-tier fantasy elite, followed at a distance by T.J. Brodie. My funky fantasy wildcard in deeper competition is James Neal, who has been more like his old goal-scoring self of late and has plenty of playoff experience -- especially on a line with another volatile character in young forward Sam Bennett. Remember, weird stuff happens in the postseason. In any event, though, I'm not going anywhere near the Calgary net. Maybe Mike Smith blossoms and runs away with things in his first playoff turn since 2011-12. Perhaps Smith stumbles out the gate and David Rittich ends up carrying Calgary on his shoulders. I have no interest in hazarding any predictions here, particularly in light of coach Bill Peters' admitted affection for operating his goaltenders in tandem.

Nashville Predators

Despite nailing 100 points and finishing on top of the Central Division, albeit barely, Nashville hasn't dominated as expected this season. Still it's difficult to bet against this talent-riddled lineup versus the top-heavy Stars, even with Ben Bishop in best form. Forward Viktor Arvidsson is your "go-to guy" for finding the back of the net, skating alongside No. 1 linemates Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. After losing most of November and December to injury, Arvidsson went on to score 26 goals from New Year's Eve to now.

Top-six forward Craig Smith sports sleeper potential, alongside Mikael Granlund and Kyle Turris -- especially since he's also earning a turn with the Predators' top power-play unit. On the blue line, P.K. Subban has cranked it up of late, scoring two goals and adding four assists on 21 shots in his final five games. That's some good timing. He's my leading fantasy choice from Nashville's back end, despite Roman Josi's more consistent production since the fall. Between the pipes, Pekka Rinne remains elite. He's coming in hot, as the veteran netminder hasn't allowed more than a pair of goals in four straight wins. Fantasy managers projecting the Predators into the Conference Finals should jump all over Rinne as their top choice in the West.

Winnipeg Jets

Despite stumbling into the postseason, the Jets should still advance to the conference semifinals. Three full days off will help Blake Wheeler and company get the dressing room in order, while Dustin Byfuglien's reappearance and the pending return of Josh Morrissey should tangibly bolster the blue line. While the Blues are riding hot in front of Jordan Binnington (see below), I remain inclined to side with a more-rounded Winnipeg squad in what should unfold as a firecracker of a series. We've got some ripe seven-game potential here.

For the Jets to soar onwards and upwards, the unit of Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Kyle Connor has to shift back into top form. A superior effort from Mathieu Perreault, Kevin Hayes and even Nikolaj Ehlers won't suffice. Goals from Patrik Laine will also help, and goodness knows he's due, "boasting" just one power-play marker (and nothing at 5-on-5) since the end of February. But remember, things tend to come in bunches for the impulsive sniper. Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba are your best blue-line bets, with Morrissey serving as an attractive sleeper. Connor Hellebuyck is also a solid, safe option for fantasy managers who trust in the Jets' ability to move forward.

Vegas Golden Knights

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!

After last year's unanticipated charge through the postseason, I'm not betting against Gerard Gallant's crew a second time. Throw in Vegas' series victory over the Sharks in 2018, along with San Jose's recent struggles, and the Knights sport a slight edge in what otherwise appears a tight, toss-up of a series. However, this only holds true if their No. 1 netminder gets himself back in order after sitting out three weeks with a lower-body injury. Having allowed four total goals in five consecutive victories to begin March, Fleury surrendered twice as many (eight) in last week's two losses following a three-week absence. Fortunately, the starting netminder hasn't endured many sour stretches this season -- only one, really, in February -- and should be relied upon to rally himself back into form.

Up front, fantasy managers might bypass Vegas' top line for greater scoring upside from the second unit. Following a ho-hum regular season, here's Max Pacioretty's opportunity to shine with his new club, alongside Mark Stone and Paul Stastny. Still figuring each other out, this trio should ratchet it up another notch once the games matter most. Defenseman Shea Theodore merits fantasy thought as a proven playoff performer, despite his limited history. The young blue-liner has 18 points in 34 postseason contests over the past two years.

San Jose Sharks

Losers of seven-straight in the latter half of March, the Sharks should hope their two victories to wrap up 2018-19 sufficiently serve to swing momentum back in their favor. Any sign of shakiness from Fleury in Vegas, and goodness knows, this team can score. With full respect to accomplished playoff veteran Joe Pavelski, I'm all over San Jose's forward duo of Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane. Both seem jazzed, sliding into the postseason alongside linemate Gustav Nyquist.

Forward Logan Couture, long admired for his playoff productivity, has collected 45 points in 40 postseason contests over the past three years. There's everyday clutch, and then there's "Couture clutch". While the lower-body issue badgering Erik Karlsson is a worry, despite his return to the ice, fellow defenseman Brent Burns is "next level" as a blue-line asset. If you foresee the Sharks bettering Vegas, Burns is a must-roster in most leagues. Despite his admirable collection of 36 wins, Martin Jones' supporting stats suggest there are more appealing goaltending options available, both just in the West and in the league as a whole.

St. Louis Blues

So, how much do you believe in the rookie goaltender, Mr. Binnington? If the answer is "lots", you may as well invest fully in all the fantasy potential St. Louis has to offer. While short of being bankable, an upset win over the Jets is well within the realm of what is possible -- particularly with such positive momentum driving Craig Berube's bunch. As such, Vladimir Tarasenko -- wrapping up a solid second-half with three goals and four assists in four contests -- should sit atop of your fantasy wish list, along with linemate Ryan O'Reilly. Leading St. Louis' supporting cast, forward David Perron, who has enjoyed a bang-up year with the Blues when healthy, appears fit and in scoring form.

Defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Vince Dunn provide your 1-2 punch on the blue line, with the former on a definite upswing -- five assists in three games to conclude 2018-19. Then there's the AHL call-up in net. Since essentially taking over in January, Binnington has proven himself a winner, losing only six of 30 games -- and not a single "L" against Winnipeg, mind you. So your zillion-dollar question is does the 25-year-old continue to shine behind a skilled club that's finally performing to potential or does he succumb to the pressure and extra attention brought on by playoff hockey? Answering correctly could mean the difference between fantasy glory and watching it all end in short order.

Dallas Stars

I'll tell you what, that final shutout performance from Bishop against the Wild to wrap up 2018-19 will go a long way in bolstering the Stars' confidence against a deeper and more playoff-experienced Nashville side. Bishop's Vezina-scented routine this season, particularly through March, is why we're even discussing Dallas fantasy assets at this stage. Those assets include the top forward duo of Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, who combined for 152 regular-season points.

Import forward Mats Zuccarello, presumably raring to go after sitting out all but two games since joining Dallas post-deadline, presents as a tempting supporting fantasy performer on a top-six line with Jamie Benn. Any fantasy manager wagering on this particular first round upset should also go "all-in" on Dallas' top offensive-defenseman and power-play engine, John Klingberg. If Bishop is at his very best, and the Predators are not, such a result isn't out of the question.

Colorado Avalanche

Even with Mikko Rantanen being fully fit, the Avalanche would be hard-pressed to beat the conference-leading Flames. As it happens, the dynamite top-line winger remains questionable for the series. Maybe we will see him at some point this postseason, but maybe not. Rantanen's health aside, beyond MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Tyson Barrie, this club doesn't have the scoring depth to compete with one of the most complete teams in the West.

Grubauer has recently been the more consistent of Colorado's two goaltenders -- and pretty super of late, in fact. That's in stark contrast with Semyon Varlamov. However, a projected quick conclusion to this opening series essentially nullifies that potential. Barring an incredible upset, fantasy managers are best advised to secure their postseason talent elsewhere.