Having an extra goaltender or two in the wings for the fantasy playoffs isn't just a good idea, it's almost a necessity. Aside from the obvious injuries that could crop up, three weeks of a stretch run in rotisserie leagues or head-to-head playoffs is long enough for even the best NHL goaltender to slump.
Have a look at some March numbers from some of our goaltender heavyweights: Tuukka Rask is 3-3-0 and sports an .899 save percentage; Braden Holtby is 3-3-1 in seven games with an .899 save percentage; Matt Murray has a 3.01 goals-against average; and Devan Dubnyk is 2-5-0. These are all No. 1 fantasy goaltenders who have helped carry teams to this point. Yes, logic dictates that they'll all likely pull out of these funks sooner rather than later, but carrying some additional options isn't a bad strategy.
We can do the same exercise with last season to prove this point. Corey Crawford, who finished as the sixth-best fantasy goaltender last season, had an .886 save percentage and only two wins while struggling with injury from March 1 to the end of last season. Petr Mrazek carried teams into March but then went 3-5-0 with a 3.57 GAA during the stretch run. The best goaltenders at the end of last season? Mike Smith, who missed a chunk of time, went 5-4-1 from March 1 onward last season, with a .944 save percentage and 1.81 GAA. Andrew Hammond started 10 games in March and April, and sported a .933 save percentage. Chad Johnson closed the season with an 8-2-1 record and 2.13 GAA after March 1. Steve Mason was 10-4-3 with a .924 save percentage and 2.14 GAA.
Don't think you're safe for the season just because your goaltenders have brought you this far. Here are some options to choose from:
Jonathan Bernier, Anaheim Ducks: Starter John Gibson has missed eight of the Ducks' last nine games, coming back for one start before aggravating a lower-body injury that doesn't have a timetable for return. Lower-body ailments are the ones goaltenders struggle to come back from, which means we really don't know how long Bernier will ride as the starter. He's available in 70 percent of ESPN leagues and sports a 6-2-0 record with a 2.00 GAA since taking over as No. 1.
Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks: With Dell spelling Martin Jones on a consistent basis now, it's easy to compare their numbers: During the past month, Jones is 4-2-1 with a .941 save percentage and 1.57 GAA, while Dell is 4-1-0 with a .948 save percentage and 1.61 GAA. That's right, it doesn't really matter which netminder is in the crease lately; they're both putting up great numbers, and Dell has been getting -- and will continue to get -- about half the workload.
Eddie Lack, Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward is still getting the bulk of the work, but that may not be the case much longer. During the past month, Ward has turned in a record of 2-3-4, with an .898 save percentage and 3.01 GAA. Lack, while admittedly not playing as much, has more wins with a 3-2-1 record, while posting ratios of .932 for his save percentage and 1.79 for his GAA. Look for Lack to get some additional work if he keeps this up.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins: It's Matt Murray's first full season as a starter, and that's why the Penguins are lucky to still have Fleury hanging around. When Murray struggles, as he has lately, with three sub-.900 save percentage outings in five March games, Fleury is around to pick up the slack. When called upon, Fleury has answered the bell, with a .938 save percentage and 2.11 GAA in four appearances during the past month.
Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers: While the New Jersey Devils may be the bane of Mason's existence, the Flyers do have 10 games against other NHL teams remaining. Mason, whom we mentioned as one of the best goaltenders to close out last season, seems to be turning it on again -- Devils aside. He left Thursday's undressing at the hands of New Jersey with "cramps" but is considered day-to-day. Overall, six of Mason's past eight starts have been a positive for fantasy owners. Just be sure to avoid the two April matchups with the Devils, against whom Mason is now 0-9-0, with an .852 save percentage for his career.
Fantasy Forecaster: March 20-26
In this critical week for your fantasy hockey team, we are graced by one five-game schedule that savvy owners can use to their advantage. With a busy week, the Hurricanes are in a position to be game changers for fantasy hockey fortunes.
As an added bonus, however, no NHL team is at a huge disadvantage for game quantity, with every team playing at least three times.
For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: "O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based on a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup) and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's season-to-date 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 "Ratings" column lists the cumulative rating from 1-10 of that week's offensive ("O") and defensive ("D") matchups.
Dallas Stars: The Stars have the cushy assignment of facing the porous New York Islanders defense twice next week during a four-game schedule. Offensively, the first thing to check on is Jamie Benn's status. He left Thursday's game with an upper-body injury and more details aren't expected until later Friday. The Stars' captain got into a tilt with the Canucks' towering rookie blueliner Nikita Tryamkin, but it's not clear if that's what caused the injury. Benn has been pouring it on offensively on a stacked top line with Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin of late. Spezza is the guy to pick up here in shallow leagues, as his availability still sits at around 30 percent of fantasy leagues, and he has eight points in his past seven games. If Benn is going to miss time, consider Patrick Sharp in deeper leagues. Though the veteran hasn't been at his, ahem, sharpest this season, he moved up to the wing with Seguin and Spezza after Benn left Thursday. Before locking him in, double check that coach Lindy Ruff doesn't go another way, as Ales Hemsky would be another nice option on the top line in Benn's absence.
Deeper leagues could also consider Esa Lindell on the back end. Though he hasn't strung together any consistent runs of fantasy value, the defenseman is locked in on the top pairing with John Klingberg, so the opportunity is always there. He has two points in his past four contests and has managed to balance his plus/minus in those contests despite going minus-2 in two of those four games.
New York Islanders: While the Stars get a boost for facing the Islanders twice, the same could be said for the Islanders facing the Stars twice. In fact, the only goaltender tandem with a save percentage worse than the Islanders' duo in March (.884) is the duo in net for the Stars (.880). Josh Ho-Sang has been breaking through offensively, as was expected once he was given some time to grow at the NHL level. The rookie has six points in his past six games, now having played only nine contests in his career. He's been promoted to the second line with Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson of late, and should have no problem finding the score sheet against the Stars' defense.
Nick Leddy has some appeal in shallower leagues, in leagues where he isn't already rostered. Owned in 69 percent of ESPN leagues, Leddy has seven points in his past nine games, despite minimal shots on goal.
Antti Raanta is expected to start one more week before the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist returns. Next week's matchups against the Devils and Islanders aren't great, but they're not terrible either. Raanta has two wins and a shutout on the books against the Devils this season.
Roberto Luongo is still up to two weeks away from a return, but James Reimer hasn't exactly been stingy in his place for the Florida Panthers. With the Hurricanes and Coyotes on the docket for next week, Reimer could be a good spot-start option.
Watch for John Hayden to hit the ESPN fantasy player pool soon. Signed out of college last week, Hayden debuted on Thursday in place of Nick Schmaltz on a line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik (Schmaltz was promoted to Patrick Kane's line). Hayden tied for fifth in NCAA Division I with five power-play goals and totaled 21 goals in 33 games as Yale's captain this season. He could be a good fit for this top line. Hayden had one shot in 8:44 for his debut but should get another crack at the top six. If not, get ready for Marian Hossa to leap back into relevancy.
The way Ryan Getzlaf has been tearing up the box score, Patrick Eaves really should start getting some value by osmosis soon. Already playing with Getzlaf at even strength, the Ducks have used Eaves in place of Corey Perry on the top power-play unit lately to try to kick-start their scoring with the man advantage.
Jakob Chychrun is going to be one heck of a fantasy darling in the future. At just 18 years old, he's managed to be a consistent presence for the struggling Coyotes. His minutes are creeping up lately, and the result has been two goals and three assists in his past five games to go along with 12 shots.
Ryan Spooner is back on the Boston Bruins' top power-play unit, bumping David Krejci from his spot there of late. Spooner has two assists in two games since returning from a concussion and continues to offer under-the-radar value.
Check the news on Jeff Skinner through the weekend after he left Thursday's game in the third period.
Oliver Bjorkstrand has been playing on the Columbus Blue Jackets' top power-play unit since March 5, and while the power-play points aren't piling up, the move has done wonders for his confidence. The rookie has five points in his past six games, with 20 shots on goal. He's skating at even strength with Sam Gagner (who is equally as hot) and Scott Hartnell.
Dylan Larkin appears to be doing all he can to salvage a sophomore slump of a season. He's poured in six points in his past seven games and has looked more consistent despite playing with different linemates almost nightly.
Is it a blip on the fantasy radar, or has Darnell Nurse turned a corner? The Edmonton Oilers defenseman, who was out from Dec. 1 to Feb. 26, returned to the ice on the third pairing with Eric Gryba. They played together for four games before Nurse switched to skating with Matthew Benning. In his past two games, Nurse has a goal, two assists and a plus-7 rating. It could be nothing, but Nurse still has loads of untapped fantasy potential, so it could be something.