Playoff forecast: Best scoring and goalie matchups to watch for

Matt Boldy's hat trick lifts Wild past Kraken (1:01)

Matt Boldy notches a hat trick in the Minnesota Wild's 5-1 win over the Seattle Kraken. (1:01)

The final push.

It's here.

Are you ready to do all you can do to maximize your fantasy hockey success for the final scoring period?

Let's talk about some of the nuances, system-gaming and strategies you can use in the race to the finish line.

Every league is different

There is a default setting on ESPN.com for fantasy leagues, but let's be real: With all the bells and whistles the game provides, you and your leaguemates probably customize it. So there isn't a one-size-fits all advice column on how to play the final weeks.

A specific strategy that caters to a head-to-head, weekly-lineup points league might not work for a rotisserie, daily-lineup league.

But there are overall strategies that apply in different ways to different settings.

The schedule

Let's concentrate on the largest target. The final scoring period for the ESPN game begins on Monday, April 3, and leagues will be decided on the evening of Wednesday, April 13. That's right, the two NHL games that were rescheduled midseason for April 14 will not be counted in your league. That's one fewer game coming from you Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets, but you can and should budget for that ahead of time.

For overall strategy, more games played is better as we head into the final week. In the hopes of giving the most bang for the buck here, I've prepared two schedule charts that show the teams with the highest cumulative opponent goals against per 60 for the final scoring period, and another with the average goals for per 60 of their opponents. The database to generate the rates only includes games from Feb. 1 to March 27. The idea was to give a smaller window that shows what teams have been doing lately, not what they've been doing in October. It's a nice pocket that captures almost two months, including one before and one after the trade deadline.

The idea behind cumulative versus average is that, for offense, you want to see the cumulative total of the goals against per 60 of the opponents because the number of games will increase the scoring opportunity, so the average isn't as helpful. Sure, the Islanders opponents have an average of 3.50 goals against per 60, which is the fourth-highest in the league, but they only play four times, which means their cumulative total is ranked 32nd out of the 32 teams.

Conversely, the cumulative total isn't as helpful as goaltenders won't be starting all of their team's remaining games. In fact, most backup goaltenders will get the nod more often against opponents with a lower goals for per 60, leaving the tough starts for the primary netminder. So the opponent goals for per 60 chart needs to be taken in with a grain of salt, but is still helpful. One of these same charts a couple of weeks ago showed that Thatcher Demko and Alexandar Georgiev were going to have a good time in the coming weeks, and that has, by and large, proven true.

This is different than the other charts I've posted in recent days because of the conscious decision to only include the stats from Feb. 1 to March 27. I think this offers a clearer picture of how teams are more likely to perform in the coming days. I would never go so far as to call this "expected goals," but that is a broad way to think about what it is illustrating. For example, you could say, "The Avalanche, in the final scoring period, face six teams that, on average, would allow 21 goals over those games."

I wouldn't use this to "chase" free-agent pickups in the general sense of the term. But would I use it to break ties in lineup decisions? Absolutely. If you are sitting on a decision between Jared McCann of the Seattle Kraken versus Anders Lee of the New York Islanders, who both have 1.9 fantasy points per game (FPPG) this season, the answer is obvious from the games played (seven versus four). But it's a bit muddier if you were looking at, say, Martin Necas and Jeff Skinner. Both of those players have six games in the final scoring period and both have averaged 2.0 FPPG. With the Hurricanes impending opponents allowing more goals on average than the Sabres opponents, I'd lean heavily toward Necas in this case.

Like the offense chart, this can't be viewed in a vacuum and I'm not sure it has as much value as the one for skaters. Still, it feels good to know which teams are facing tougher opponents during the final scoring period. Does it make me confident enough to start Jacob Markstrom in a fantasy championship? Not without a reason to swing for the fences. But, if pushed into a corner, I might trust Markstrom against the Blackhawks, Jets, Canucks, Predators and Sharks, as opposed to trusting Darcy Kuemper against the Canadiens, Panthers, Islanders, Bruins and Devils. And this display makes that knowledge digestible.

But there are subsections of the schedule question that beg different considerations and are a little more league-format specific.

The light nights

If you have daily lineup moves in your league and are even a modest tinkerer when it comes to your fantasy lineup, you are acutely aware of what a light night is. For those who like to set and forget, a light night is when the NHL doesn't have a lot of game scheduled. What's a lot? It's all relative. Some weeks have lighter nights than others.

The advantage in daily lineup leagues (that don't have games-played maximums; hang tight, those are next), is that you can stream in players without having to bench anyone else in your lineup that would otherwise be active. Once you get to around 10 to 12 games on a day, you are not longer guaranteed to be able to find a spot in your lineup for a pickup without sacrificing a game from someone else playing that evening.

For the final scoring period of this season, there are four light nights. April 3, April 5 and April 12 have three games scheduled and April 9 has only two (for what it's worth, the league has zero games on Good Friday, April 7). The rest of the final scoring period has at least 10 games per day.

While this strategy can come into play with a longer-term outlook by picking up players for an extended period that happen to have multiple light nights, this is not very viable during this particular run. Of those four light nights with a collective total of 11 games, only the Anaheim Ducks play more than once on them.

But keep this arrow in your quiver for the future.

The max games

Streaming, of course, has been largely combated by the implementation of a maximum games-played threshold. These are mostly restricted to season-long formats. It's the default setting for ESPN leagues, whether points or rotisserie. What it means is that each spot in your roster can only be occupied 82 times during the season. That is shared across roster spots if there is more than one in your league settings. If your league uses four defense slots, you can only collect 328 games-worth of stats from that position.

But most fantasy managers will naturally lag behind on hitting that maximum, mostly due to last-minute injuries or a forgotten lineup change. But you can also fall behind in weekly leagues simply through the natural ebb and flow of the schedule by using different players at different times, or if a player is injured on a Tuesday but already locked into your lineup.

The current status of your games-played maximums is tracked on your team page in your web browser in the bottom left corner. The pop-up will show you how many games you have left and what your current pace means to that maximum. If you go over, you are done with starting that position for the season. Any players in those roster spots will no longer count to your totals.

But here's the rub: As long as you have one game left before you hit the maximum, all the games from the same day you use the final one will count. For example, if you only have one game remaining for a LW, but you have three LWs playing that night, all three will count.

Is it skirting the system to do so? Nah, it's just a little-known nuance of how the game works. By no means is it an easy feat to pull off, especially in weekly leagues. And that kind of micromanagement has just as much a chance to bite you as it does to help you. But, yet again, it's an arrow in your quiver for the final days of the season. If you can whittle down your games played so that it ticks over to one remaining on the final day, you will feel like you pulled off a heist when you start all five of your defensemen on April 13.

The larger piece of advice for the games-played maximum is to push your totals up if you are trending to be well under your maximums. When the final week rolls around and you still have more games from left wingers than you could possibly use, swap out a player with only four or five games for Eeli Tolvanen, Daniel Sprong or Brandon Tanev from the Seattle Kraken, who will play seven times during the final scoring period. Just make sure you aren't benching someone that is likely to outscore them in a shorter window. And the opposite is true, of course. If you are trending to go over the threshold, only start your best players while managing against the cap.

If you are in a head-to-head league that doesn't have a games-played maximum, stream when you need to.

The scoring

Category-targeted acquisitions can make the difference. This should be burned into fantasy managers brains at this stage, but a quick reminder never hurts.

In head-to-head leagues, there is functionally no difference between winning a single category by one counting stat or 30. You get the same results in the standings if you beat your opponent 30-29 in goals as you would if you beat them 59-29. Use that exaggerated capacity to help your team elsewhere. You can glean where your strengths are compared to your opponent's weaknesses by looking at the last couple weeks of data.

Heck, in default ESPN leagues you are already a couple of days into the championship matchup and can probably tell where things might be headed by looking at your opponent's team. If your lineup locks are weekly, use this first week of results to inform lineup changes that you will make this coming Sunday to play into strengths and weaknesses.

In rotisserie leagues, you should have a good idea if there are particular categories you can fade or attack during the final weeks. Are you way behind the next competitor in assists and also way ahead of the team behind you? You can potentially find better players to start than Charlie McAvoy or Morgan Rielly (depending on your power-play point needs). Or if you are in a comfortable place in blocked shots, but could potentially make up a rotisserie point in hits, you could drop Alec Martinez or David Savard to get Sammy Blais or Michael "Tiger Williams" Pezzetta onto your team.

This is not a task for the passively interested and will require some projecting and speculating. But a targeted attack on a particular category will bring about a better outcome than just letting it ride and hoping for the best. Those rotisserie points don't make themselves.

Good luck as you make those final, consequential decisions!