You must be wary of a few things heading into the final week of the season. While no NHL team is going to run up the white flag in any contest, there are certainly some teams better positioned to ease off the gas pedal as the final week of the season winds down. A prime example is the Chicago Blackhawks, who are just two wins away from locking down the No. 1-overall seed in the Western Conference. If the Blackhawks already have home ice clinched, you can bet some key players may get a night off against the Anaheim Ducks or Los Angeles Kings to close out the season.
At the other end of the spectrum, the entire Western Conference playoff picture is framed at this point, with the Kings having to be perfect for the remainder of the campaign in order to change which teams make the postseason. That’s an unlikely scenario, meaning we already know which eight teams are in the playoffs and which six teams are out. It doesn’t mean the Winnipeg Jets or Dallas Stars are going to surrender in their remaining games, but you might see some different responsibilities or line assignments as coaches take advantage of the remaining schedule to make some evaluations for next year. Players who were pushing through injuries on a team bound for the golf course next week have little incentive to keep pushing through the pain and risking further damage.
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It’s the opposite situation in the Eastern Conference, where five teams are realistically in the running for the three final playoff spots, and another two teams still within a miracle run to make it. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators have the Tampa Bay Lightning nipping at their heels in their division, while the red hot Carolina Hurricanes only have to extend their run one more week to push into postseason contention.
We are already seeing the on-ice impact of the waning days of the regular season. On Thursday, Erik Karlsson (a notorious iron man on the ice) sat out, Nikita Kucherov (the hottest scorer in the NHL) was too sick to play and Aleksander Barkov (whose Florida Panthers are out of the playoff picture) was benched due to an upper-body injury. While the Lightning absolutely need Kucherov for a postseason push and the Senators have similar desperation to get Karlsson back in the lineup, Barkov has no reason to push for a comeback this season.
On the flip side, the cavalry is returning for some teams, whether to make a final push or just get a few games in at the end of the campaign. Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson are both a possibility for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. Stamkos has been down for the count since Nov. 17 and was never a sure thing to return this season. Johnson has been ailing since March 9. Obviously both would be a huge boon to the Lightning’s playoff chances for the final five games of the season. Adding a superstar like Stamkos to Kucherov’s current tear could be explosive. Watch the line combinations carefully on Saturday, as there could be some wild value swings ahead of the final week. Is Kucherov with Stamkos or Johnson? Where does Brayden Point fit in? What about Ondrej Palat?
While it’s hard to imagine two players returning to a team with more impact than Stamkos and Johnson, the Pittsburgh Penguins do have a chance to top them. Evgeni Malkin is still on the sidelines with a shoulder injury and Kris Letang is making progress in his return from an upper-body injury. However, with the Penguins comfortably in playoff position and holding six points plus a game in hand on home-ice advantage in the first round, both players could end up targeting the postseason as a return to action. Malkin appears to be a little closer, but would still need a practice or two to get back in action. Don’t drop him yet, as the Penguins play three games in the final four days of the season.
Fantasy forecaster: April 3-9
We have not one, but two teams with five games for the final week of the season. However, with a fairly busy schedule overall, the advantage of such a full slate is slightly diluted. In addition to the Maple Leafs and Senators playing five games, 16 other teams play four games next week. The remaining 12 NHL teams play three games.
For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: “O” (offense) and “D” (defense) matchup ratings are based upon 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.
Ottawa Senators: The Forecaster is calling for low-scoring affairs in a home-and-home with the Detroit Red Wings to start the week, and gives the Senators an overall poor rating for offensive potential during next week’s five-game schedule. That said, playing five games is a distinct advantage in and of itself. The Senators had a relatively sad offensive showing without catalyst Erik Karlsson in the lineup on Thursday, generating only 19 shots against Alex Stalock. Before you get overly enthused about the sweet schedule, make sure Karlsson is back in action this weekend, or at least due back for Monday. The Senators offense is less imposing with Karlsson making breakout passes.
If Karlsson is out, Dion Phaneuf becomes a must-start in any format. Even with the suppressed overall output, Phaneuf would be manning the big minutes both on and off the power play without Karlsson around. Kyle Turris goes from fringe to functional with the extra games. He’s been playing with Bobby Ryan at even strength and holding down a role on the top power-play unit with Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman. Turris and Phaneuf are available in about one-third of leagues.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs also close with a five-game week, including four games at home — where they boast the best power play in the NHL. Featured on that power play of late is unheralded rookie Connor Brown. Lost in the sea of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander‘s rookie campaigns, Brown has 19 goals, including four in his past eight games. Brown is a great candidate for your final-week push and is available in 95 percent of ESPN leagues.
Brown plays at even strength with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. For his part, Komarov is a fantasy option next week thanks to the added quantity of games. He has five points in his past five games and is available in 87 percent of ESPN leagues
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres go into the final week with four maxed-out games on the offensive Forecaster ratings. Rasmus Ristolainen is back from a suspension this weekend, so the offense will be firing on all cylinders. Kyle Okposo‘s status will be a question mark for this weekend, but his absence Thursday was due to illness, so he should be back by next week.
The first stop for a speculative add should be Tyler Ennis. Available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, Ennis is locked in on the top line with Jack Eichel — with or without Okposo in the lineup. When Okposo is healthy, he’ll join Eichel and Ennis on that line.
Edmonton Oilers: It will be interesting to see how the playoff-bound Oilers deploy their team in the final two games of the regular season. The Oilers have a home-and-home with the hapless Vancouver Canucks. Connor McDavid, Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl have been making opponents look ridiculous, but will the Oilers give them a break in two games that are arguably winnable by Edmonton’s farm team? These are the kind of scenarios you need to play out in your head as the end of next week approaches.
The Oilers are highlighted here because two games against the Canucks are particularly advantageous, but you’ll also want to watch the Minnesota Wild, who close the books on the season against the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes late next week, the St. Louis Blues, who play the Hurricanes and Avalanche on the final weekend, and the Washington Capitals, who potentially face non-playoff teams in the “on the bubble” Bruins and Panthers.
Still available in 33 percent of ESPN leagues, stop by and see if Frederik Andersen is available to help your playoff push. With two sets of back-to-back games, there is a chance he is rested a couple of times next week. However, there is also a chance the Maple Leafs march him out for all five games with the postseason on the line.
Cam Ward looks to take advantage of the injury to Eddie Lack with some hot play of late. He’s posted two consecutive one-goal-against wins since Lack got hurt on Monday. The Hurricanes have been pouring it on for a playoff push and if Ward stays hot, he’ll start.
Scott Darling has struggled in his past few games since an injury, but with their playoff seeding all but locked up, Chicago might turn to him more than once next week.
Steve Mason looks to have another good start or two in him. He’s running on four straight wins with only eight goals allowed. The Flyers face the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, then close with a back-to-back set over the weekend.
There are crazier plans for the final week than picking up Minnesota’s Alex Stalock. Even though he made his first start of the season on Thursday for the Wild, he showed well in stopping 18 of 19 shots and getting the win. It’s more than we can say for Devan Dubnyk, who has been struggling mightily for the better part of a month.
Available in 58 percent of ESPN leagues, Mathieu Perreault continues to ride a hot streak into next week. He has 11 points in his past eight games and was most recently spotted on a line with Patrik Laine.
Sean Couturier is streaking to the finish with linemates Dale Weise and Brayden Schenn. His three-point night on Thursday was his second such effort in his past seven games. He’s available in 84 percent of ESPN leagues.
Sven Andrighetto just doesn’t know how to slow down. Still making good on his plum assignment alongside Nathan MacKinnon, Andrighetto has multi-point efforts in his past two games and eight points in his last seven outings.
Pavel Zacha wants us to remember his name going into next season. The Devils rookie has an assist in six of his past eight games. He could get some line reinforcements with the expected return of Michael Cammalleri this weekend.
Clayton Keller is being given every chance to shine, placed by the Coyotes on the “top” line (the use of the word top in Arizona is debatable) with Christian Dvorak and Radim Vrbata. He notched his first NHL assist in his second game on Wednesday.
Similarly, Brock Boeser already has two goals in his first three NHL games with the Canucks skating on the “top” line (once again, an interchangeable term for this squad) with Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat.
The next college signee to debut will be Tyson Jost of the Avalanche. He holds similar deep-league upside to Keller and Boeser, and is certainly a player to stash in keeper leagues.
If Aleksander Barkov misses more time, expect someone other than Denis Malgin to get a shot on the top line with Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau. We’re looking at you, Nick Bjugstad or Jonathan Marchessault.