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PHT on Fantasy: Backup plan

A lot of things baffle me about the NHL, but like many, you just eventually let it wash away for the sheer sake of enjoying the game.

While I consider myself both bemused and annoyed by Matthew Tkachuk, essentially the Bart Simpson of the NHL, it feels like the NHL doesn’t even ask him to write things on chalkboards with these slap-on-the-wrist suspensions. Boosts in scoring almost always come down to a) young talent forcing improvements by sheer skill and will and b) actually calling a handful of infractions that should have always been penalties in the first place. And, of course, the debilitating normalcy of work stoppages.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things you just need to do the shrug emoji toward and just keep moving along.

The things that still baffle me, though, are the decisions that cost teams wins and, arguably, money. NHL GMs sometimes skimping on backups has regularly confounded me, to the point that I can’t just look away.

Consider this. Aside from the Oilers turning Cam Talbot into the hockey equivalent of a running back who received too many carries or a pitcher who logged too many innings last season, most teams pencil their starting goalies in for about 60-65 regular-season games per year. Things get fuzzy when you add postseason starts, especially when you remember that the repeat champion Penguins started at least two goalies for significant chunks of their runs both times.

That generally leaves your backup starting 17-22 games per season, and that’s if you’re lucky with your number one guy’s health.

So, it boggles my mind a bit that the pursuit of a backup is frequently treated with the indifference you’d show in acquiring a bottom-pairing defenseman or depth forward.

[Rotoworld: Looking at the week ahead with Michael Finewax]

Sure, “goalies are voodoo” and maybe there’s even more noise with number two guys, but it still bewilders me that the Pittsburgh Penguins would really think Antti Niemi was a likely fit last summer, and that all these teams with shaky backups didn’t even bother claiming Calvin Pickard. And so on.

Before this devolves from rant to hyper-rant, allow me to shift to the point of this column: a lot of starters are on the shelf right now, so how have their backups been doing, and how much should you trust them to continue to succeed?

In this latest fantasy column, I’ll look at goalies who are currently thrust into situations, and maybe sprinkle in a few scenarios that just ended or experienced quite a bit of disruption.

Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list. Also, this column ended up running long. Sorry.

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Coyotes – So, it looks like Antti Raanta is healthy, but it’s been a bumpy ride.

Raanta’s played 13 games, Scott Wedgewood appeared in 12, Louis Domingue was banished after seven, and others have picked up some scraps. While I believe the Coyotes are more competitive than their record indicates, I also think that it’s better to travel the road of least resistance in fantasy.

There are a lot of bumps on this desert road.

Bruins – Yeah, I know Tuukka Rask is getting older, but it’s still perplexing that Anton Khudobin has objectively been the better goalie with each guy getting 10+ games played. This is weird and not good, but credit Khudobin for rekindling some of his early-Boston magic.

(Honestly, as happy as I was to see David Backes score two goals last night, I’m generally of the mind that the Bruins offer little beyond a terrifying top line and some promising young blueliners. At least in fantasy.)

Flames – Good grief, it’s really Mike Smith or bust, isn’t it?  Enjoy footage of not-Mike-Smith getting a goal scored off of his mask:

Blackhawks – So far, Anton Forsberg is 1-4-3 with a .906 save percentage as Corey Crawford is on the mend.

For so long, Chicago was the place where backup goalies would do so well, they’d often get chances to be full-time starters. Sometimes those guys ended up being legit, while others were propped up a bit. Now the Blackhawks’ leaky defense instead trips their goalies and pushes their faces in puddles. Or whatever the opposite of “propping up” is. Knocking your crutches/walking cane out of your hand? I don’t know, someone help me out.

You really need to be desperate to roll with Forsberg, is what I’m saying.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Stars – Ben Bishop is dealing with a back issue, opening the door for Kari Lehtonen to already eclipse 10 games played before the calendar hits 2018. This should go about as well as things went on this hideous shorthanded goal (which wasn’t really on Lehtonen, mind you).

On a similar note, I like some of the Stars players and generally Ken Hitchcock as a coach, but not together. It’s basically a peanut-butter steak in Dallas.

Oilers – In my head, I thought Laurent Brossoit was doing kind of OK with Cam Talbot on the shelf.

In reality, Brossoit’s been even worse, with an ugly .877 save percentage so far this season. If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if the Oilers were pretty bad at everything beyond employing Connor McDavid.

Panthers – Roberto Luongo‘s injury could be substantial, which is bad news since he’s been playing so well and James Reimer‘s been off his game. Still, Reimer’s been a 1B and analytics darling for ages now, so if anyone can run with a chance like this, it’s Reimer.

Considering the comedy of errors that is Panthers management, this isn’t a perfect situation, but Reimer’s a decent enough choice if you’re needing a goalie and have limited options.

Kings – Darcy Kuemper playing well so far might, stealthily, be the most surprising thing about these surprising Kings.

Canadiens – Kudos to Charlie Lindgren, who might be a goalie to monitor, yet we don’t really need to belabor the “Carey Price is important” point, do we?

Islanders – A tricky situation with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss splitting things like a true platoon, at least so far. Halak’s been getting the reps lately, it seems. While the Islanders seem like they’re a true playoff team, their goalies are probably not worth the trouble, unless one of them is maybe your alternate option.

Note: I’m the type who prefers the ease of certainty instead of the tedium of tinkering.

Penguins – Coming into this season, Tristan Jarry generated strong work in the AHL in 2016-17, managing a .925 save percentage. The Penguins wanted to leave in there to marinate for some time, but with Matt Murray hurt, Jarry’s pressed into action, and he’s shining pretty nicely. He’s 5-1-2 with a nice .921 save percentage in eight games.

As a second-rounder (44th in 2013 vs. Murray, a third-rounder who went 83rd in 2012), you could argue that Jarry might actually have the superior pedigree.

Jarry is currently 59 percent owned in Yahoo, so there’s still a chance you can get him. While the Penguins’ defense might leave him vulnerable at times, Pittsburgh is playing well, Murray might be week-to-week and Jarry is solid. You could do worse than to give him an audition.

Golden Knights – ¯_(ツ)_/¯

With Marc-Andre Fleury showing some progress, there’s risk beyond the already-comical risk of taking on Vegas goalies, but let’s give Malcolm Subban credit for revamping his career prospects.

As with most Golden Knights things, I really don’t know what to tell you, other than “Yes, they seem better than we all expected, and no, I still don’t know what happens next.”

Jets – There are warning signs that the Connor Hellebuyck train will slow or even come to a screeching halt, but sometimes fantasy success is about being willing to laugh and enjoy hot streaks while they last.

Just be careful to look for escape routes in case that tunnel is actually just a painted-on boulder, Roadrunner-style.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.