It's the championship week for many head-to-head contests and the penultimate week for the rotisserie/points season -- and you have to give a serious look to the Buffalo Sabres. Here we are at the most important juncture of the season and the Sabres have a dream schedule. Not only do they play five games next week, but three of those games are against the bottom three teams in the Eastern Conference.
Additionally, those teams rank last, third to last and fourth to last in terms of keeping pucks out of their net this season. It's almost too good to be true. Now, the Sabres' offense hasn't exactly been anything to write home about during the past few weeks. Conor Sheary and Brandon Montour share the team lead with six points in 10 games so far this month. However, that doesn't necessarily limit what is to come.
Buffalo starts the week with a back-to-back set in New Jersey and Ottawa, then comes home to face Detroit on Thursday. After that, the Sabres go back-to-back, visiting the Islanders and hosting the Blue Jackets to close out the week. Overall, the schedule is fantastic for managers in head-to-head leagues who are looking to supplement their counting stats.
If you happen to play in the 20 percent of leagues where Montour and/or top-line winger Sam Reinhart are available, those guys should be your first stop. Montour has been exceptional since joining the Sabres, despite going from getting looks on the top unit in Anaheim to being a clear second fiddle on the Buffalo power play. He's getting decent chunks of ice time with the Sabres as Rasmus Dahlin's defensive partner and firing plenty of shots on goal. Reinhart has been in a funk this month with just two assists in 10 games, but he needs to be in the mix since he's still locked in with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner on the team's top line and power play.
Digging a bit deeper, the line of Sheary, Evan Rodrigues and Alexander Nylander ranks among the top 15 NHL lines in Corsi for (CF) during the last three games. As mentioned, Sheary has been having a decent month with six points in 10 games, while Nylander has three points in his last two outings.
Carter Hutton is available in around one-third of ESPN leagues. If yours is one of them, he's definitely an option. In fact, he's a very good option if you can just use him through Thursday, when he should start two of three games against the Senators, Devils and Red Wings. Linus Ullmark has been splitting time with Hutton in the crease, but his save percentage hasn't been good enough of late (.887 in his last five starts).
How do you make room for these guys? Remember that you can be a little more drastic in head-to-head leagues where the season comes to an end after this week. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche play only twice next week, so any fringe players become automatically expendable. Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Carl Soderberg, Derick Brassard, Alexander Kerfoot -- all of them can be dumped. Would you rather get two games from Gourde or five from Buffalo's Rodrigues? This should be an easy decision.
Looking ahead to the next week of NHL games from a fantasy perspective, here are some recommendations on which players to start and which to avoid.
Fantasy Forecaster: March 25-31
Highlights from teams playing four games: Eleven teams will play four times next week. Among them, the Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights have the best schedules on the Forecaster, while the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers are rated strong offensively (so-so on defense). Charlie McAvoy is the top dog on the Bruins blue line with Torey Krug sidelined. ... Gustav Nyquist steps up to play with Logan Couture and Timo Meier while Joe Pavelski continues to miss time with a lower-body injury. ... Mark Stone's arrival in Vegas has helped the power play, therefore making Shea Theodore a strong option. ... First-time fantasy-relevant Brett Pesce is on a tear from the Hurricanes blue line, with nine points in his past 10 games. ... Petr Mrazek has been useful of late in the Carolina crease, but with two games against the Capitals, one against the desperate Flyers and one against the Penguins next week, he should be faded. ... The Calgary Flames and New York Rangers also have four games, but neither plays a back-to-back set. That won't matter much, though, as the Flames have been rotating David Rittich and Mike Smith, while the Rangers have struggled to give any quality goaltending stats this season.
Teams playing two games: As previously mentioned, the Lightning and Avalanche play only twice in this scoring period -- the final one for head-to-head leagues. While it's an easy decision to ditch the fringe players, it's a tougher one deciding whether someone like Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Barrie or Brayden Point deserves to stick with your team for this week. There's a fair argument to be made that you could be better suited by ditching Rantanen for Conor Sheary. They have the same point totals this month in 10 games, and Sheary will play five times for your team compared to twice for Rantanen -- and perhaps not even that, as he's day-to-day. You'll have to make your own risk/reward decisions with these options, but don't hold any loyalty to a player just because he helped get you here.
Highlights from teams playing three games: Of the teams playing three games, the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues all have a back-to-back set on tap. That likely takes one start each away from John Gibson, Pekka Rinne, Carter Hart and Jordan Binnington. Plan for it in your matchups. ... The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets have the best offensive weeks on tap among three-game teams on the Forecaster. However, both teams are top-heavy, so it's hard to find any available fantasy options without going deeper than we'd like for just three games. If you are really feeling the matchups, Zach Hyman and Kevin Hayes are available in a handful of leagues.
For those new to the forecaster chart, here are some explanations: "O" (offense) and "D" (defense) matchup ratings are based on 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, its performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played, and its opponents' numbers in those categories. The "Ratings" column lists the cumulative rating from 1 to 10 of that week's offensive ("O") and defensive ("D") matchups.
Just get away from the Devils entirely. Their current injury report is getting ridiculous, with Kyle Palmieri and Will Butcher now showing up alongside names that include Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Sami Vatanen and, of course, Taylor Hall.
The New York Islanders net, as good as it is for fantasy, is complicated heading into next week. Robin Lehner came back from missing some time to allow five goals to Boston on Tuesday. However, Thomas Greiss got the hook on Thursday and Lehner was perfect in relief. Tread carefully if this is what you're deciding on for the final week of head-to-head.
Mats Zuccarello, who had a mercurial debut with the Stars last month in the form of two points and a broken arm, is expected to be with the team next week. He could be an intriguing "Hail Mary" play to close out the season. His return would also take some of the shine off the recently useful Roope Hintz.