In the Crease: Schedule strength

Throughout the past few weeks, I've been alluding to particular goalies' remaining strength of schedule, paying special attention to how often they're poised to take on the top 10 goal-scoring teams or bottom 10 goal-scoring teams. With just over five weeks to go in this truncated season, let's head back to the schedule well again for a look at some goalies whose fate may be directly affected by the teams remaining on the docket.

The teams at the low end of the scoring spectrum offer a better opportunity for the goalies facing them, and that bottom-10 group includes five clubs from the Western Conference (Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes) and five from the Eastern Conference (New York Rangers, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets). After peering at the remaining schedule for these impotent offenses, some interesting facts emerged.

Out West, a group of four teams play our bottom five teams seven times over the final stretch: Anaheim Ducks (featuring Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth), Calgary Flames (Miikka Kiprusoff starts most nights), Minnesota Wild (with Niklas Backstrom, who has six straight wins) and Vancouver Canucks, a team that has alternated between Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, though Schneider has performed much better as of late. On the flip side, Oilers netminder Devan Dubnyk will get to face his fellow bottom-feeding teams only twice in the final stretch, and Nashville's Pekka Rinne gets a look at other anemic offenses just three times.

Rinne's Predators are in the middle of the pack when it comes to facing the West's top-scoring offenses (Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings), playing those clubs a combined five times in the remaining weeks; of note, however, is the fact that they have to square off against the Blackhawks three more times. The teams with the advantage in this realm (with only three games against the top-scoring teams) are Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver; you'll notice that Anaheim and Vancouver make both of the "good" lists, which is an encouraging sign for those who own any of the four gents involved in the goaltending duties in those cities. Meanwhile, Dallas has to play the West's heavy firepower teams on a whopping eight occasions from here until the end of the campaign -- including three against the Ducks -- having just traded away Brenden Morrow, their spirited leader. Don't go dropping Kari Lehtonen based on these facts alone, but be forewarned that he's got a tougher road ahead than some of his peers around the league.

In the East, the remaining schedule is pretty balanced as it relates to the bottom five, except for the fact that Toronto has eight games remaining against the group, two more than any other team. That's good news for those who've invested in James Reimer for their fantasy goaltending needs. In terms of teams facing our bottom five infrequently, the group naturally includes two of their own -- Ottawa (three games against other low-end scoring teams) and Winnipeg (just two) -- as well as Montreal and Washington, who have just four games remaining against the low-scoring opponents. That's not the kind of news that will make a fantasy owner bench Carey Price or Braden Holtby, but the road is ostensibly going to be harder with a lack of games against the low-scoring teams on the docket.

In fact, Montreal and Washington are among a group that plays the East's top-scoring clubs (Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals and New York Islanders) seven times in the final run. But no team in the East plays that group of six more than Carolina, which lost another goalie to injury this past weekend with Dan Ellis' leg laceration. Justin Peters, come on down, you've got the toughest schedule remaining in the Eastern Conference, with nine games left against those six listed above. The team with the fewest against those opponents? Pittsburgh, and this slate comes right as the team is catching fire (12 straight wins), and Marc-Andre Fleury is going on a bit of a run himself: During his eight-game personal winning streak, he has posted a 2.15 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, both well ahead of his career averages.

To be clear, the strength (or lack thereof) of a goalie's remaining schedule isn't the sole determining factor in deciding whether to activate him (or acquire him via waivers or a trade). But, while you won't be able to grab Backstrom off your waiver wire, you may just find a player like Reimer there for the taking, as he's owned in just 69.1 percent of ESPN leagues as of this posting. Furthermore, Fleury is another universally owned goalie in fantasy leagues, but his backup Tomas Vokoun -- who has eight wins in 11 starts overall, and 2.14/.931 ratios in five March appearances -- is owned in just 36.4 percent. As we know, backups on strong teams can be more valuable than some starters on weak teams in fantasy hockey.

Lastly, there's the case of Kiprusoff. After seven straight seasons of 70-plus appearances, he obviously wasn't going to hit that number in a 48-game campaign. He'll start the vast majority of the 18 remaining contests for Calgary, but the consistency he'd displayed in seasons past hasn't been apparent, especially as of late: He has allowed one or two goals on three occasions in March, while allowing four to six goals on four occasions. So despite the fact that the Flames have all those games against the low-scoring teams out West (and just four games against the high-scoring ones), Kiprusoff is not a good play in most fantasy formats.

Top 40 Goalies

Note: Tim Kavanagh's top 40 goalies are ranked for their expected performance in ESPN Standard Leagues. ESPN standard stats include wins, goals-against average and save percentage. The ranking from last week is indicated in parentheses.

1. Tuukka Rask, Bos (1)
2. Carey Price, Mon (3)
3. Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (4)
4. Antti Niemi, SJ (5)
5. Pekka Rinne, Nsh (7)
6. Corey Crawford, Chi (2)
7. Jonathan Quick, LA (6)
8. Jonas Hiller, Ana (13)
9. Cory Schneider, Van (12)
10. Jimmy Howard, Det (9)
11. Marc-Andre Fleury, Pit (14)
12. Braden Holtby, Was (15)
13. Kari Lehtonen, Dal (10)
14. Craig Anderson, Ott (11)
15. Martin Brodeur, NJ (18)
16. Sergei Bobrovsky, Cls (17)
17. Niklas Backstrom, Min (31)
18. Viktor Fasth, Ana (8)
19. Roberto Luongo, Van (16)
20. James Reimer, Tor (26)
21. Jake Allen, StL (21)
22. Jaroslav Halak, StL (20)
23. Ray Emery, Chi (28)
24. Robin Lehner, Ott (33)
25. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phi (19)
26. Ben Bishop, Ott (29)
27. Devan Dubnyk, Edm (22)
28. Ryan Miller, Buf (23)
29. Mike Smith, Pho (24)
30. Semyon Varlamov, Col (25)
31. Jonathan Bernier, LA (NR)
32. Jacob Markstrom, Fla (37)
33. Ondrej Pavelec, Wpg (32)
34. Ben Scrivens, Tor (30)
35. Tomas Vokoun, Pit (34)
36. Evgeni Nabokov, NYI (36)
37. Johan Hedberg, NJ (38)
38. Dan Ellis, Car (35)
39. Anders Lindback, TB (27)
40. Anton Khudobin, Bos (NR)

Rising and Falling

Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks (up five spots to No. 8): The story of Viktor Fasth was a really intriguing one: 30-year-old makes his NHL debut, wins his first eight starts, earns a multimillion-dollar contract. But the timeshare in the Anaheim nets appears to be subsiding. Hiller has started nine of 14 games in the month of March, and came on in relief of Fasth during a particularly rough outing for the Swedish import. In those 10 appearances, Hiller has gone 6-1-2, with a 1.84 GAA and .932 save percentage. His bump in the ratings is three-fold: It looks like he's back to being the team's true No. 1, he's got the skills to continue to post great ratios like that (as we've seen in the past) and this Ducks team should continue to score enough to give him the chance to keep racking up the W's. He's not quite universally owned (99.1 percent), but he's close, so acquiring him is left to those whose league trading deadline has not yet passed. It'll take a lot to get him, but for those who need a big boost for the final weeks of the season, Hiller will be about as good as they get for that stretch.

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars (down three spots to No. 13): As mentioned above, Lehtonen lost one of his most inspiring teammates in Brenden Morrow this week -- check Sean Allen's "Front Line" column from Monday for Morrow's fantasy value with Pittsburgh -- and it may not end there, as others (such as Jaromir Jagr) have also been mentioned in trade rumors. Lehtonen is talented enough to put up great numbers behind a less-than-stellar team (he played in Atlanta for the first five seasons of his career), but he has been remarkably inconsistent as of late: Going back to Feb. 28 (a period of 12 appearances), Lehtonen has six outings with two or fewer goals allowed, but five outings with four or more. This is coming right at the wrong time for his fantasy owners, and it may be time to consider another option, depending upon what's available on your bench. Alternatively, if a player like Reimer, Vokoun or Jake Allen -- last week's cover boy -- is on the waiver wire, now would be the time to grab him to provide another option. Hang on to Lehtonen but don't be afraid to bench him.

Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles Kings (on the board at No. 31): Kings backup Bernier has put up some nice numbers here and there this season, spreading 10 starts out across the slate thus far. He has notched eight wins in those 10 appearances, and posted strong ratios to boot (1.94 GAA and .923 SV%), but his fantasy value has been limited by the presence of Jonathan Quick. However, with the trade deadline looming, Bernier's name has once again crept into the front of our consciousness: One rumor has him as part of a trade package heading to Calgary for Jarome Iginla. Kings GM Dean Lombardi made comments this past Friday making it seem like he isn't interested in using Bernier as a trade chip, and that idea is buttressed by the fact that the Kings don't really have another NHL-ready backup in the system to step in as Quick's understudy. Nevertheless, things could change between now and the deadline, and Bernier's value would obviously rise if he landed in a place where he'd be the No. 1.


Ben Bishop (owned in 19.6 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Robin Lehner (46.4 percent), Ottawa Senators: Since Craig Anderson's injury on Feb. 21, both Bishop and Lehner have made eight appearances for Ottawa. Over that span, Bishop has had the better record (6-2-0, including an OT win and three shootout wins, compared to a 3-1-4 mark for Lehner), but the 21-year-old has posted better ratio numbers: 2.05 in GAA compared to Bishop's 2.64, and a .940 save percentage compared to Bishop's .921. Sens coach Paul MacLean remains committed to using each of them, so the fantasy angle here is that Lehner is the slightly better play, given his advantage in two of the three categories.

Jaroslav Halak (owned in 93.2 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Jake Allen (73.4 percent), St. Louis Blues: Allen had that great run (as noted in last week's column), but apparently his margin for error was paper thin: After losing his first game in six starts -- and just his second in 10 overall -- Allen was benched in favor of Halak for the past two St. Louis contests. The veteran played well in one outing -- a 19-save shutout of the Oilers -- but had an off night against the Flames on Sunday, allowing three goals on just 17 shots. So will it be back to the rookie on Tuesday? Or will Halak get another chance to shut out the Oilers? It seems that this is a situation where daily lineup leaguers will have to keep their eye on the newswire. For weekly lineup folks, Allen remains a marginally better play, though this situation remains fluid as the timeshare continues.

Cory Schneider (owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues) and Roberto Luongo (98.6 percent), Vancouver Canucks: After another brief respite for Schneider -- four games, during which time Luongo went 2-2-0, with a 3.21 GAA and .883 save percentage -- he's been tapped for the past four Vancouver contests, going 4-0-0 in that span with a 1.25 GAA and .957 save percentage. From a season-wide standpoint, Schneider is now ahead in winning percentage (10 W's in 18 games compared to 7 in 15 for Luongo), GAA (2.32 to 2.47) and save percentage (.921 to .904). Luongo will undoubtedly continue to get some starts here and there, but the evidence points to this timeshare concluding within the near future.

Training room roundup

Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators: Though Anderson did some light work on Monday in the Sens' morning skate -- including taking some shots, according to Sportsnet TV -- there still is no sign of any specific return date. It helps the Senators that Lehner and Bishop are playing so well in Anderson's absence, and thus Ottawa doesn't need to rush him back into action. Given that he will be able to suit up again at some point this season, owners in the 11.8 percent of leagues in which he was dropped should scoop him up if they've got a spare bench spot.

Dan Ellis, Carolina Hurricanes: In the closing moments of the Hurricanes' loss to the New Jersey Devils on March 21, Ellis remained down on the ice as the puck made its way down to the Devils' end. After a whistle, he quickly skated over to the bench and into the locker room; after the contest, it was revealed that Ellis had suffered a laceration on his knee, and his return timetable is unclear. For now, the goaltending duties fall to Justin Peters, who doesn't appear to be much of a strong play with 2.75/.908 ratios in five appearances this season. The Canes have been linked in trade rumors to the pursuit of a goaltender following the Ellis injury (on top of the Cam Ward injury), but remember that this is the team that still has nine games remaining against the East's most high-powered offenses. It's hard to fathom a scenario in which Peters makes a great pickup right now for a fantasy team.

Anders Lindback, Tampa Bay Lightning: Just as things were starting to click for Lindback -- his five starts in March were all "quality starts," with a 1.82 GAA and .941 save percentage in that span -- he suffered a high ankle sprain, according to the Tampa Tribune. The range of time a player spends on the shelf with that injury can vary from a couple weeks to over a month, so it's unclear whether we've seen the last of Lindback this season. Hang on to him for now, as he may be back. But in the meantime, we'll get a longer look at Cedrick Desjardins. Desjardins made two starts during the 2010-11 season, stopping 61 of 63 shots total and winning both. Despite a great deal of seasoning in the AHL in between, things haven't gone so well for the New Brunswick native this time around: Three appearances in, he has gone 0-3-0, with 3.00/.890 ratios. He may get better at some point, but is simply not worth the risk right now.