This is it. It all comes down to this final week. This last chance for maneuvers and roster moves to push you toward fantasy hockey glory. There is almost no such thing as a sure thing in this game, so stay diligent and work the free-agent wire for the final few days.
A few general tips to get you going:
• Watch the schedule here for the final week with only one game, the rescheduled affair between the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators, set for April 28. The season was supposed to end on Saturday, making it a short week for most teams. The Buffalo Sabres have only two games, which should be no big deal as few of you fighting for a title are likely relying on Sabres, but the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning also have only two games, which might be trouble. The Blue Jackets are home to some hot scoring lately and the Bolts are a huge source of fantasy value for any Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis owners. Check to see how many players you depend on from those teams and make plans to make up some games elsewhere.
• That said, make sure you watch your games-played limit, if applicable. ESPN standard leagues, as well as many other leagues, will limit the playing time in each roster slot. You may be pushing up against some of the limitations, as the games-played limits are meant to take you right to the end of the NHL schedule, but not past it. Note where you may be coming close to passing the limit early and what roster spots for which you may have a few extra games.
• If you have no games-played limit or aren't close to reaching it, maximize the schedule. The Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, Detroit Red Wings, Phoenix Coyotes and Ottawa Senators all have an extra game this week. Viktor Stalberg, Nail Yakupov, Justin Abdelkader and Milan Michalek all jump to mind as free agents in many leagues that will come with a bonus game for the coming week.
• Watch your goaltending ratios, especially in head-to-head leagues. Don't be afraid to shut things down early in net if you have enough of a lead in rotisserie leagues or get an early lead in head-to-head finals. You can't throw too many starts at the counting statistics, but you need to take good care of ratios. If you have an insurmountable goals-against average or save percentage and have met your minimum starts in daily transaction leagues, don't be afraid to bench your netminder. This will be rare in roto leagues, but just to throw it out there: If a team with 70 goaltender starts had a 2.34 GAA and pitched six shutouts this week, the GAA would improve to 2.14. That shows your approximate "crazy scenario" safe zone. But it works the other way too. A team with a 2.14 GAA with 70 starts right now would move to 2.23 if it had six starts this week averaging 3.5 goals allowed. Don't think about it too much, but respect that your ratios can go up or down.
• Look ahead to next season if you play in a keeper league and are out of the running to win. You never know what is sitting on the free-agent pile as others compete for the title. Depending on your rules, injured players might be dropped during the stretch run if they are not expected back. That's a fair move by the owner scrambling to finish in the money, but if you are allowed to pick up that player and keep them for next year, don't let it stop you. Again, adhering to your leagues settings, check for players like Steve Downie, Jared Cowan, Nino Niederreiter, maybe Erik Karlsson or heck, there was even a story this season about Chris Pronger trying to make it back to the NHL. You never know what will happen between now and next season. And if your rules allow it, there is no harm in stashing guys you may want to keep when it comes time to make that decision next year. You can even do this with prospects if it is in your league rules. Evgeny Kuznetsov? Ryan Strome? Mark Scheifele? Why not!
Looking for offense
Wings, Sens, Hawks, Oil, Yotes: As mentioned above, these four teams have an extra game this week, during what is a short week to begin with. We mention Stalberg, Yakupov, Abdelkader and Michalek as possible options and here's why: Stalberg is always streaky, but his current run of three games with a point comes at a time when he is also getting power-play time with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Yakupov is hotter now than he has been all season. With 10 points in his past 10 games, he is still available in 29 percent of ESPN leagues because he cooled off so much during the middle of the campaign. Abdelkader has only two goals in his past four games, but he has a line assignment to die for, playing with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. And Michalek returned to a Sens lineup desperate for some offense. He quickly found a home on what soon became the top line again with Daniel Alfredsson and Kyle Turris. Michalek has a point in each of three games since coming back and had a ridiculous eight shots on goal on Tuesday.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Buds have the best Forecaster rating in the NHL for this final week, with games against the anemic goaltending in Florida (Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers), as well as the Montreal Canadiens. Expect a scoring feast for the Leafs against the Bolts and Cats. A quick check for Joffrey Lupul or Tyler Bozak will reveal that they are probably not available in your league, but there is a small chance (10 percent for Lupul and 13 percent for Bozak). The next place to look will be the linemate playing with Lupul and Nazem Kadri. Nikolai Kulemin started Thursday's game with the job, but he is not the guy you want. After the line went to minus-2 before the end of the first period, Kulemin was removed for Clarke MacArthur. Available in 95 percent of ESPN leagues, MacArthur is your best bet from the Leafs to take advantage of the good schedule.
Pittsburgh Penguins: How about that trade deadline for the Penguins? If you had said they would be undefeated since the trade deadline with barely a whiff of Evgeni Malkin, no Sidney Crosby and only a little bit of Kris Letang, you would have been branded a straight-up fan boy. But here we are, with Brenden Morrow doing his best Crosby impression (eight points in four games), Jarome Iginla pretending to be Malkin (five points in four games) and the rest of the crew still picking up points. If Morrow isn't available to you, his linemate Beau Bennett should be. And in lieu of Iginla, his linemate Jussi Jokinen has been scoring as well. But make sure you first look for Morrow, who somehow remains available in 83 percent of ESPN leagues.
Looking for goaltending
Buffalo Sabres: Jhonas Enroth has often been considered a future No. 1 goaltender. With nothing to lose, it appears the Sabres want to see what he has learned as Ryan Miller's understudy. Miller had a good game against the Bruins on Wednesday, but it was his first good game in more than a week. Enroth started the previous two games and allowed just one goal on 62 shots to notch a pair of wins. Here's betting Enroth gets at least one of the Sabres' two games next week and it will probably be a good start.
Philadelphia Flyers: It may sound crazy, but that's what we do here at the Forecaster in the goaltending section when there is just a week left in the season. The task of recommending goaltenders that are actually still available is Herculean at this point. But here we are, recommending Steve Mason. The Flyers aren't making the playoffs and it looks as though Ilya Bryzgalov and Mason have settled into a rotation. That would mean Mason will be in line for two starts next week against the injury-riddled Bruins and the Senators. Mason has actually looked, overall, pretty solid in a Flyers uniform. He has a 1.82 GAA and, even more impressive, a .941 save percentage in four games (three starts). Did we mention he is a warm body who might start?
Phoenix Coyotes: The sun comes up, the sun goes down, Mike Smith is day-to-day; these things we expect. This time, the Coyotes appear ready to give Chad Johnson another run between the pipes after Jason LaBarbera was less than thrilling the last time Smith was hurt. Johnson, following a 29-save performance in a 2-1 loss to St. Louis, has not lost a single one of his four starts in regulation time, has a 1.21 GAA and .954 save percentage. If Smith stays hurt, Johnson is your man for next week.
This chart shows you the top and bottom teams in the NHL in goals and shots, for and against, during the past 21 days.
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 rein over your fantasy hockey decisions within a $100 million fantasy budget. For more on the game and to sign up, click here.
The skeds: Don't forget that you are swinging for the fences here if you trail in your group or trail behind your overall goal. Playing it completely safe in the Hockey Challenge won't get you to the top if you aren't almost there already. It's possible to make some big gains in this game by picking the right players to go off in a certain week. Make some bold predictions and go for it this week if you aren't in contention right now.
If you like sticking with what works, the Winnipeg Jets' Andrew Ladd ($8.6M) and Blake Wheeler ($8.5M) top the list for your squad this coming week. The duo has been absolutely red hot lately. Brenden Morrow ($5.0M) is the cheaper version of a red-hot commodity.
My strategy to swing for the fences is to take forwards from the teams that have an extra game this week. The Blackhawks, Oilers, Red Wings, Coyotes and Senators all play four games while everyone else plays three or fewer.
Of the four-game players, Jonathan Toews ($10.3M) and Marian Hossa ($8.5M) are the easiest to love for your roster. But a cheaper pair might be Milan Michalek ($6.5M) and Kyle Turris ($6.5M).
This time around, it appears Zach Bogosian ($4.1M) is willing to pick up some of the offensive slack for the injured Tobias Enstrom. If Bogosian can keep up the pace (six points in three games), he is an extreme value buy for the final week. Kimmo Timonen ($7.8M) has almost been as hot as Bogosian. He costs quite a bit more, but comes with a better track record. Don't forget that Brent Burns ($6.5M) is still an absolute steal on defense as he plays forward for the San Jose Sharks. Also on the cheap side, Jake Gardiner ($4.8M) is playing next to Dion Phaneuf ($8.4M) at both even strength and on the man advantage. His offensive game finally showed on Thursday with two assists.
Goaltending: When you consider that teams will be battling for wins in playoff races, Craig Anderson ($11.7M) and Jimmy Howard ($12.5M) jump out as options. Both are fighting for playoff position and both have four-game weeks when they might be forced to start all four games due to the importance. If you are looking for rolls, Antti Niemi ($12.0M) and Brian Elliott ($11.1M) are the top netminders to look at. Steve Mason ($8.3M) is your Hail Mary of the week. He has looked good as a member of the Flyers and may steal the final few starts.
My roster for next week:
Brian Elliot, G ($11.1M)
Craig Anderson, G ($11.7M)
Sergei Gonchar, D ($7.1M)
Jake Gardiner, D ($4.8M)
Zach Bogosian, D ($4.1M)
Brent Burns, D ($5.9M / $6.5M on market)
Nail Yakupov, F ($7.5M)
Taylor Hall, F ($9.3M)
Pavel Datsyuk, F ($9.8M)
Henrik Zetterberg, F ($9.4M)
Jonathan Toews, F ($10.3M)
Marian Hossa, F ($8.5M)