By Jason Chen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We're barreling toward the finish line, which means only one thing: Fantasy hockey playoffs. So, let's focus on matchups to target and avoid down the stretch.
It's been a tough year in head-to-head leagues with unexpected schedule changes, but all of the postponed games have been scheduled and hopefully, there are no more delays. I assume all 31 teams will play all 56 games, though how exactly that will work with the Canucks potentially playing games after the fantasy playoffs begin will be an interesting situation for league commissioners. The trade deadline just passed, too, so aside from call-ups and waiver-wire moves, there shouldn't be any significant roster changes.
When it comes to the fantasy playoffs, two important things are worth considering: Strength of schedule and number of games played. Strength of schedule can be calculated in different ways, and the easiest way to do it is to simply average the points percentage of upcoming opponents; the number of games played is important for obvious reasons, especially in such a random sport where game-to-game performance is tough to predict. The easiest way to overcome that nuisance is to pick players who play the most games during the playoff week and hope that there are more good results than bad ones.
To start, let's begin with a simple schedule breakdown with points percentages as of Tuesday, April 13. Note that most Yahoo leagues are set to end May 8, which will leave games on the table for most teams. It's an overwhelming chart, but just remember that for opponents' point percentage (Opp P%), green = START, red = BENCH.
Based on raw opponents' P%, the Penguins have the easiest schedule for the remainder of the season. That's because there's a five-game stretch starting Saturday where they play only the Sabres and the Devils before hitting a tougher stretch in Week 15 when they face the Bruins and the Capitals twice.
The Bruins face a similarly easy path because they play the Sabres and the Devils a combined eight more times, and given the additions of Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly, there's a reasonable expectation that they'll be an even better team down the stretch.
The two West Division juggernauts — the Avalanche and Golden Knights — draw the fourth- and fifth-lowest opponent P%, mostly because their division has four teams in the league's bottom 10. The Wild surprisingly rank third, mostly due to schedule luck because they have only two games remaining against the Knights and none against the Avs.
On the other hand — ignoring the lottery-bound Sabres — the Sharks, Blues, Predators, and Panthers face pretty tough schedules to close out the season. The Panthers will be hard-pressed to win the division and will have to play the rest of the way without Aaron Ekblad, while the Blues will have to get their goaltending in order and hope that their veterans snap out of their slump.
Week 13: Penguins, Golden Knights, Canadiens, Rangers (ranked in order of opponents' P%)
The Pens play the Sabres back-to-back over the weekend, so look for Casey DeSmith (36 percent rostered) to get at least one start and hopefully nab a win. Sidney Crosby's line is an obvious start here, but also don't forget about Jared McCann (40 percent, 3-2-5 in last five games) as their No. 2 center and the newly acquired Jeff Carter (16 percent), who should get a look on the top two lines.
Artemi Panarin and the Rangers are also a good play the rest of the week with four consecutive games against the Devils before their schedule gets significantly more difficult. It includes one back-to-back, so that might be a possible win for Alexandar Georgiev in a spot start, though he hasn't fared well against them (.860 Sv%, 3.97 GAA) in three appearances. The sneaky play will be Colin Blackwell (5 percent), playing on Panarin's opposite and finishing at an astonishing rate (12 goals on 46 shots). The Blackhawks have two enticing matchups against the Red Wings, but that's also the problem — they play just twice the rest of the week.
Week 14: Bruins, Stars, Golden Knights, Senators, Penguins
Players on the Bruins and Stars are very desirable this week because they have easy schedules and they play four games. The Bruins will face the Sabres six more times this season, three of which will happen in Week 14, setting up an extended revenge tour for Hall. Depending on the health of the Bruins' goalies, this could also be a chance for Jeremy Swayman (20 percent) and Daniel Vladar (10 percent) to pick up a win or two. The Sabres allow 32.6 shots per game, fourth-most in the league, and in their two previous meetings were outshot by a combined 22 shots. Depth scorers such as Craig Smith (26 percent), Nick Ritchie (19 percent), and Jake DeBrusk (5 percent) may be good plays this week too, having combined for four goals in five games against the Sabres.
The Stars should have it even easier with four straight games against the Wings, who picked up Jakub Vrana (49 percent) at the deadline but are missing just about everyone else in their top-six. It should be easy wins for Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger with a good defense that's been bolstered with the addition of Sami Vatanen, and also a good chance for rookie Jason Robertson (38 percent) to pick up a few more points, especially against the Wings' 26th-ranked PK. Don't forget about Roope Hintz (71 percent), who has been phenomenal with 32 points in 29 games while playing through injury.
The Senators, including Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson (25 percent), Tim Stutzle (20 percent), Josh Norris (9 percent), and Colin White (1 percent) are a sneaky play because they play the Canucks twice on home ice, following a stretch where the Canucks play two back-to-back series despite just returning from a COVID-related break. The Canucks had their number early in the season but that may no longer be the case; the Sens should be in better condition and it's possible the Canucks work out a rotation in which taxi squad members start playing to give their veterans a break. Star forward Elias Pettersson also does not seem close to returning.
Week 15: Kings, Flyers, Bruins, Lightning, Ducks
Both the Kings and Ducks are sneaky plays because they play each other four times, and in their three previous meetings averaged a combined seven goals per game. Proven scorers such as Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are worth starting. Otherwise, it's a crapshoot with inconsistent scorers on both teams. However, the Kings should have the edge with Gabriel Vilardi (2 percent), Andreas Athanasiou (2 percent), Alex Iafallo (13 percent), and Adrian Kempe (25 percent) offering more consistency than Sam Steel (1 percent) or Troy Terry (1 percent), and Trevor Zegras is likely to finish the season in the minors.
The Lightning are an interesting play and should have no problems with games against Chicago, Dallas, and two against Detroit, but they've been hit with an injury to Steven Stamkos and have lost two of their last three meetings against them. However, even if the scoring isn't there, this should be a very good week for Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is a combined 14-1-0 with a .938 Sv% against those three teams this season.
Week 16: Islanders, Jets, Penguins, Oilers, Avalanche
If the Islanders win the division, they can thank the scheduling gods — they face the Sabres and Devils twice each in the final week. Hopefully, Kyle Palmieri (48 percent) will have found his groove by now, having scored in his third game as an Islander and carved out a niche on the power play. Mathew Barzal is an obvious start this week, but note Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau have also fared well against both teams.
Things get very interesting in the North in the final week. The Jets face the Sens twice (with the Flames sandwiched between), so Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor, who have combined for 30 points in seven games against the Sens, are must-starts. The Oilers also play three games, but all will be against the Canucks, who will be reaching the tail end of a grueling stretch of 19 games in just 31 days. I'm not convinced the Canucks will have any energy — or even be able to stay healthy — to make these games competitive. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Kailer Yamamoto (44 percent) are solid plays because the Canucks' thin defense has not been able to keep them in check all season, even at full strength.
Week 13: Kings, Predators, Flyers, Canucks, Sabres
The Canucks have the most games remaining (19), but five will be played after May 8, and having seen how the Flyers and Sabres responded following a lengthy break due to COVID, the outlook just isn't good. They're risking injury playing so many games in such a short time, and no doubt they'll be less than 100 percent effective when they begin play Friday.
The Preds face one of the toughest parts of their schedule with games against the Hurricanes and Lightning. They should be avoided until Week 14 and 16 when their schedule eases a bit.
Week 14: Blues, Jets, Sharks, Capitals, Hurricanes
The Blues face the most daunting schedule with a three-game series against the Avs. It looks like Philipp Grubauer is prone to the odd bad start, but the Avs have also bolstered their goaltending with Jonas Johansson and Devan Dubnyk, who may be able to nab a win. The Jets should be similarly avoided not because they're a bad team, but because they play the Maple Leafs three straight times, which makes the normally reliable Connor Hellebuyck a shakier play than usual.
The Capitals have little upside this week, playing just two road games against the Islanders. Weeks 14 and 15 are by far the toughest stretch for the remainder of their season, facing the Isles and Penguins five times combined. The Caps are a combined 5-3-3 against them this season with at least four goals allowed in four games. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, face Tampa Bay and Florida twice each, all on the road.
Week 15: Blackhawks, Stars, Red Wings
The Stars will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs partly because their schedule is so tough to close out the season. In Weeks 15 and 16 they play the Lightning three times, the Hurricanes twice, and the Panthers once. It's not like the Stars have no chance, but they clearly aren't in the same class this season. Even a late-season return by Tyler Seguin and/or Ben Bishop won't alter their course.
Week 16: Blackhawks, Stars, Sabres, Flyers, Flames, Red Wings, Panthers
The Blackhawks will close out the season with three consecutive road games against the Canes in Week 16, and that's after they face the Lightning and Panthers in the previous week. Hopefully, their play picks up late in the season with Kevin Lankinen struggling in April (.884 Sv%, 3.34 GAA). Otherwise, it's going to be a rough end to a season that started very promising.
It would also be best to ignore the Panthers, Red Wings, and Flames, who play just two games. Their seasons are not over, but the current cut-off date for Yahoo's head-to-head leagues means the Panthers' final game and the Flames' remaining three games won't count.
The Flyers are in the same boat with their final game slated for May 10 against the Devils, but in Week 16 will have to face the Penguins in back-to-back home games and then hit the road for another back-to-back against the Caps. Neither Carter Hart nor Brian Elliott should be relied upon in the final week of the 2021 fantasy season.