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NHL: DADOUN – THE FANTASY WEEK AHEAD (April 8th – April 14th) – Eastern playoff race tightens with Penguins back in the hunt – Favourable matchups and players to target

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 02: Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) celebrates after scoring a goal during a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils on April 2, 2024 at Prudential Center in the Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire)

The battle for the second seed in the Eastern Conference wild-card race, along with the third seed in the Metropolitan Division could go down to the wire.

The third spot in the Metro is held by Philadelphia (36-29-11, 83 points), which has seemed destined to make the playoffs for a while. However, the Flyers have fallen on tough times, going 2-5-3 over their last 10 games, which has put them in a vulnerable position. To make matters worse, the Flyers have a 17-13-7 away record, and their next four contests are on the road. That might make it tough for Philadelphia to maintain its playoff hold.

Meanwhile, the Islanders (34-27-15, 83 points) occupy the second wild-card spot. It’s been a weird journey for New York, which seemed to end its playoff push with a six-game losing streak from March 11-21, only to rebound with a 5-2-0 run since. The Islanders do have a somewhat tough schedule for the remainder of the season, including two remaining games against the Rangers, but they’re at least in charge of their destiny.

Washington (36-29-10, 82 points) and Detroit (37-30-8, 82 points) have lost ground to the Islanders, but are still very much in the hunt. The Red Wings have won just four of their last 16 games, but Detroit got a badly needed two points on the road against Tampa Bay on Monday, so that’s something the Red Wings can potentially build off. Kane is doing his best to guide Detroit forward with five goals and 11 points across his past 10 games. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the veteran continue to come up clutch down the final stretch.

Speaking of aging stars trying to push their team into the playoffs, Sidney Crosby has supplied an unreal seven goals and 20 points over his past 12 contests. Pittsburgh (35-10-11, 81 points) was written out of the playoff race a while ago, but after a 5-0-2 stretch, the Penguins are back in the conversation. Importantly, the Penguins have two potential paths between the third Metropolitan Division seed and the second wild-card spot.

Pittsburgh still has an uphill battle, in part due to its difficult schedule. Its remaining games are against Tampa Bay, Toronto, Detroit, Boston, Nashville and the Islanders -- all teams either in a playoff spot or in the postseason hunt. Still, what a story it would be if Crosby led the Penguins into the playoffs even after they dealt Jake Guentzel to Carolina at the deadline.

Arizona Coyotes – TUE @ SEA, WED @ VAN (BTB), FRI @ EDM, SUN @ CGY

The Coyotes will be on the road this week, playing in Seattle on Tuesday, Vancouver on Wednesday, Edmonton on Friday and Calgary on Sunday. It’s a difficult schedule, but there aren’t a lot of teams featuring in four contests this week, so Arizona is still worthy of highlighting.

Although Arizona will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, some of the Coyotes’ younger players are giving the fans reason to be optimistic about the future. Josh Doan, son of former Coyotes captain Shane Doan, made his NHL debut March 26 and has already accumulated two goals and five points across four contests. The 22-year-old Doan also looked good in AHL Tucson this year, providing 26 goals and 46 points in 62 outings. He’ll be a rookie worth watching next season, though, despite his hot start, I wouldn’t peg him as one of the early favorites to compete for the Calder Trophy.

If he ends up having a rookie campaign like Logan Cooley has, I think the Coyotes would be pleased with that. Cooley hasn’t made headlines in his first season, but the 19-year-old has had his moments, providing 17 goals and 39 points through 75 outings. The highlight so far has been his hat trick against Nashville, which he recorded on March 28. He also has six goals and nine points over his past nine appearances.

Matias Maccelli is also part of the Coyotes’ long-term plans. The 23-year-old has 14 goals and 51 points in 75 outings in 2023-24. Not a bad output for a player who will come with a $3,425,000 annual cap hit through 2025-26, especially given that he still has room to grow. Maccelli has looked especially good recently, supplying three goals and five points over his past four outings.

Calgary Flames – TUE @SJS, THU @ LAK, FRI @ ANA (BTB), SUN VS ARI

The Flames will start the week with a game in San Jose on Thursday before visiting Los Angeles on Thursday and Anaheim on Friday. They’ll conclude the week with a home contest versus the Coyotes. Among those adversaries, the Kings are the only ones in a playoff position.

It’s still too early to pass final judgment on the trade that sent Elias Lindholm from Calgary to Vancouver, but so far it’s looking like a potential steal for the Flames. Not only did the Flames get pieces that might help them in the future, including a 2024 first-round pick, but while Lindholm, who presently has a wrist injury, has underwhelmed with Vancouver when healthy, Andrei Kuzmenko has settled in nicely with the Flames.

Kuzmenko’s provided four goals and seven points in his past four outings. He still has just 17 goals and 36 points in 65 outings between Vancouver and Calgary in 2023-24, which is a steep departure from his 74-point showing last season, but clearly, he still has offensive abilities. He’ll make for an interesting late-round gamble in fantasy drafts next season given his high-risk, high-reward status.

Kuzmenko’s not the only Flames player who is red hot. There’s also defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, who has an incredible three goals and eight points in his past five appearances. That brings him up to 19 goals and 48 points along with 47 PIM, 179 hits and 189 blocks in 75 appearances in 2023-24. Calgary traded away defensemen Noah Hanifin and Chris Tanev before the deadline, but Weegar will remain with the Flames as their headline blueliner after inking an eight-year, $50 million contract back in October of 2022. That deal runs through 2030-31.

Calgary also made a long-term commitment to Nazem Kadri, who is signed through 2028-29 at a $7 million annual cap hit. That contract is questionable, especially because Kadri is already 33 years old, but to his credit, he’s been productive this campaign with 24 goals and 65 points in 75 outings. Based on his recent play -- Kadri has a goal and six points over his last five games -- it wouldn’t be surprising to see him reach the 70-point mark for the second time in his career.

Florida Panthers – TUE VS OTT, THU VS CBJ, SAT VS BUF

The Panthers have just three games scheduled next week, but they’re all home contests and none of their adversaries will be making the playoffs. Florida will host the Senators on Tuesday, the Blue Jackets on Thursday and the Sabres on Saturday.

Florida has an eye toward the playoffs, but in the meantime, the squad will move forward without Aaron Ekblad (undisclosed) and Carter Verhaeghe (upper body), who both might be done for what’s left of the regular season.

Ekblad’s injury resulted in Josh Mahura drawing back into the lineup Thursday. Mahura registered an assist in 15:28 of ice time in that contest, bringing him up to nine assists in 27 outings this season. Mahura will probably play regularly for the remainder of the season. He doesn’t do enough offensively to make him worth using in standard fantasy leagues, but he does have some utility in formats that value PIM, hits and blocks -- the 25-year-old has 18, 36 and 24, respectively, in those categories.

Carter Verhaeghe’s absence has opened the door for Nick Cousins to play alongside Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk. Although Cousins isn’t a major offensive contributor -- he has just six goals and 12 points across 64 contests this season -- those are pretty much ideal linemates. Cousins contributed a goal and an assist versus Ottawa on Thursday with Tkachuk and Bennett providing the assists on his marker.

The loss of offense caused by Verhaeghe’s injury might also be partially mitigated by Aleksander Barkov’s amazing play of late. The 28-year-old Barkov dealt with his own health issues recently, missing three straight contests from March 21-24, but he’s supplied four goals and nine points in six outings since returning from that undisclosed injury.

Los Angeles Kings – TUE @ ANA THU VS CGY SAT VS ANA

Like the Panthers, LA has just three games scheduled next week, but the competition is favorable. The Kings will play in Anaheim on Tuesday before hosting the Flames on Thursday and the Ducks on Saturday.

Danault has missed the Kings’ past four games, but the injury doesn’t sound major. Coach Jim Hiller described Danault’s chances of returning last Monday as “50/50,” per Zach Dooley of LA Kings Insider. He didn’t end up playing in that contest, but perhaps he’ll be available at some point next week. The only X-Factor is that LA has pretty much secured its playoff berth at this point, and while the Kings are still battling for playoff positioning, it might still make more sense to allow Danault to rest and be as close to 100 percent as possible during the playoffs rather than risk rushing him back.

In the meantime, Blake Lizotte is playing a bigger role than normal. He’s averaged 16:31 of ice time during Danault’s absence, compared to just 11:35 overall in 2023-24. Look for Lizotte to shift back to his typical supporting role once Danault does return. The injury has also created an opening for Akil Thomas to get his first taste of NHL action. The 24-year-old has averaged just 6:18 over his first two contests, but he still has managed to record a goal and four points in that span. Thomas has been solid this campaign with AHL Ontario, providing 22 goals and 43 points in 61 outings, and it would be interesting to see what he could do at the NHL level if given a bigger role. If nothing else, Thomas will be someone to keep an eye on during training camp.

The two upcoming games against the Ducks, who rank 30th offensively with 2.45 goals per game, should be a great opportunity to start goaltender Cam Talbot or David Rittich, depending on who is deployed. Talbot, who has a 24-18-6 record, 2.47 GAA and .915 save percentage across 49 contests, seems set to serve as the Kings’ starter in the playoffs. However, Rittich has done well this campaign with a 12-6-3 record, 2.21 GAA and .919 save percentage in 23 games, and both goaltenders are likely to be utilized in the final days of the season as LA looks to keep both of them fresh.

Seattle Kraken – TUE VS ARI, THU VS SJS, SAT @ DAL, SUN @ STL

Seattle will begin the week at home with contests against the Coyotes on Tuesday and the Sharks on Thursday. The Kraken will then visit Dallas on Saturday and St. Louis on Sunday. Dallas is the only team on that list in a playoff position.

The Kraken will miss the postseason, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that Joey Daccord has proven to be a strong goaltender for them. He’s posted an 18-16-11 record, 2.42 GAA and .918 save percentage in 47 outings in 2023-24. Daccord will remain with the Kraken next year with an affordable $1.2 million cap hit, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he proves to be the clear starter in 2024-25 ahead of Philipp Grubauer, who is in danger of finishing with a save percentage below .900 for the third straight campaign -- he's 12-14-2 with a 2.97 GAA and an .895 save percentage in 32 appearances.

Rather than goaltending, offense has been Seattle’s failing this year. The Kraken rank 29th with 2.61 goals per game. Jared McCann has arguably been part of the problem. Sure, he does lead the team with 28 goals and 60 points in 74 outings, but that still marks a significant decline from his 40-goal showing in 2022-23. For what it’s worth, though, he’s finishing the campaign strong, providing a goal and six points in his last five appearances.

Matty Beniers has seen a much steeper decline. He had 24 goals and 57 points in 80 outings as a rookie but has gone through a sophomore slump, contributing 13 goals and 33 points across 70 appearances. Beniers is partially salvaging the campaign late, collecting three goals and five points across his past five outings.

Tampa Bay Lightning – TUE VS CBJ, THU VS OTT, SAT @ WAS

The Lightning will open the week by hosting the Blue Jackets on Tuesday and the Senators on Thursday. Those are two favorable matchups against teams near the bottom of the league’s standings. Tampa Bay’s road contest against Washington on Saturday might be difficult, though, especially as the Capitals fight to earn a wild-card spot.

Of course, when it comes to the Lightning, the biggest question is if Nikita Kucherov will win the Art Ross Trophy and thus bolster his bid for the Hart. Kucherov has 43 goals and 133 points in 75 outings, giving him a three-point edge over Nathan MacKinnon (48 goals, 82 assists) and a six-point lead over Connor McDavid (29 goals, 97 assists). Kucherov has built that advantage by accumulating an incredible nine points (one goal) over his past four appearances. He’ll likely need a strong finish to maintain his edge over MacKinnon and McDavid, but that’s certainly within his power.

That spectacle might mask a growing injury problem for Tampa Bay. The squad was already missing defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (leg) along with forwards Tanner Jeannot (upper body) and Logan Brown (undisclosed) going into Thursday’s contest against Montreal, and Brandon Hagel (undisclosed) as well as Anthony Cirelli (undisclosed) were hurt during the Lightning’s 7-4 victory. It’s not clear yet how long Hagel or Cirelli will be out for, but we might see Conor Sheary draw back into the lineup.

Although Sheary has just three goals and 13 points in 52 games this season, those numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt because he’s averaged just 10:54 of ice time. With mounting injuries, Sheary might be utilized in a top-nine role, which should lead to a meaningful uptick in offensive production. Although Sheary has never been able to replicate his 53-point showing with Pittsburgh in 2016-17, he can at least be a decent middle-six forward when given the chance.

The Lightning might also lean on Nick Paul more going down the stretch. The 29-year-old has provided three goals over his past two games, elevating him to 22 markers and 42 points in 76 outings in 2023-24.

Toronto Maple Leafs – MON VS PIT, TUE @ NJD (BTB), THU VS NJD, SAT VS DET

Toronto has a packed schedule next week, starting with a home contest against Pittsburgh on Monday. The Maple Leafs will then play in New Jersey on Tuesday before hosting the Devils on Thursday and will conclude the week with a home tilt versus the Red Wings.

As is the case with Tampa Bay, a single player’s pursuit of the Hart Trophy, not to mention tremendous milestones, is the center of attention in Toronto. Auston Matthews has managed eight goals and 15 points over his past eight outings, bringing him up to 63 markers and 99 points in 74 contests this season. His 63 goals are tied for 27th on the all-time single-season list, and Matthews has an outside chance of becoming just the 10th player in NHL history and the first since 1992-93 to reach the 70-goal milestone. As it is, Matthews is the first player of the salary cap era to score at least 60 goals on two occasions.

Matthews’ recent success is all the more impressive because he hasn’t had Mitchell Marner (ankle) to work off. Marner hasn’t been in the lineup since March 7, but he might make his return this Saturday versus Montreal. Interestingly, rather than plug Marner back into his typical role alongside Matthews, he’s instead projected to serve alongside Bobby McMann and John Tavares in his return. Matthews would then play alongside Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi while William Nylander would work with Matthew Knies and Pontus Holmberg. There’s some logic in spreading out their talent like that, especially ahead of the playoffs. Teams that can roll out three effective scoring lines tend to go far, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Marner end up back with Matthews before long.

Outside of Matthews, the Leafs’ hottest forward recently has arguably been Knies. While the rookie has left something to be desired with his 13 goals and 33 points in 73 contests this season, he has supplied a goal and five points over his last five outings. Bertuzzi has also been a standout performer lately, scoring four goals over his past five appearances.

Vegas Golden Knights – MON @ VAN, WED @ EDM, FRI VS MIN, SUN VS COL

The Golden Knights will open the week on the road with contests in Vancouver on Monday and Edmonton on Wednesday. The Golden Knights will then return home to host the Wild on Friday and the Avalanche on Sunday. It’s not an easy schedule, but Vegas is getting highlighted anyway because there weren’t that many teams with four games on the docket.

Tomas Hertl (knee) hasn’t made his Golden Knights debut yet, but he seems to be drawing close to it, so perhaps Vegas will get its first game with the 30-year-old this coming week. He had 15 goals and 34 points in 48 games with the lowly Sharks before being dealt to Vegas on March 8. Hertl’s likely to see his playing time go down somewhat with Vegas -- he averaged 20:54 of ice time in San Jose -- but he’ll be working with much better players, so his production might still rise. Keep an eye on how Vegas utilizes him during the final games of the season because he has the potential to do very well in playoff leagues.

While Vegas hasn’t reaped the rewards of acquiring Hertl yet, Anthony Mantha is already having an impact. Acquired from Washington on March 5, Mantha got off to a slow start with just a goal over his first seven Vegas contests, but he’s hit his stride while providing seven points (one marker) over his past six appearances. The 29-year-old is serving in a middle-six capacity and has seen time recently alongside William Karlsson.

Sticking with Karlsson, who has 26 goals and 53 points in 63 games, would be advantageous for Mantha. The 31-year-old Karlsson has also been red hot recently, collecting two tallies and seven points over his last five outings.