Open Ice: Top producers from non-contenders
You know what is more dangerous than an NHL team that is a virtual lock for the postseason and trying to work out the kinks before the playoffs begin? An NHL team that is a virtual lock NOT to make the playoffs, just playing for pride and the fans.
The bottom five teams in the Eastern Conference have only the faintest of odds to make a run at the postseason. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders are all but mathematically eliminated from the postseason. But their combined records over their past five games are 16-6-3.
Are the Thrashers about to make a miracle run into the playoffs? No. Any player on the team would tell you that off the record. Yet, they have still rolled off five straight wins (including two shutouts). With nothing to lose, it's a lot easier to win.
Not only can a fantasy owner take an attitude lesson from the plucky Thrashers, but one could also glean a few gems off the waiver wire from them. For the teams out of the playoff race, the coaches have taken the leashes off many players, while a number of youngsters have shed their training wheels. Slava Kozlov is an example of the former, while Kyle Okposo is a great example of the latter. Just because a team is unlikely to be playing hockey past April 12 doesn't mean you can't pick up some spare parts from them until then.
It's the late edition of Cory Murphy who is the shining light of late. After being squeezed out in Florida, he garnered interest only after coming over to Tampa Bay off re-entry waivers. The 5-foot-10 former Finnish League star has ascended to the role of power-play quarterback and has points in five of seven games this month. Coincidentally, it's the same five games in which the Lightning have earned at least one point.
Colorado Avalanche: They are going to keep fighting right down to the finish, according to coach Tony Granato, "We're not worried about who we are playing or where they are in the standings. We're worried about winning games and trying to climb as high as we can and play as hard as we can all the way to the end." Any hope of the Avs making the playoffs was likely lost in the offseason when they figured the tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft was enough to compete in the West.
However, the team is building on some recent success, with three wins in four games after suffering through a six-game losing skid. The Avs' atrocious power play has woken up in their two most recent wins, going 4-for-13 against Edmonton and Minnesota. John-Michael Liles, the overtime hero from Saturday, had a goal or an assist on all four power-play markers in those contests. In fact, he has six points in his past three games.
On the blue line with Liles for the power play, and ready to get hot for the final month of the season, is Paul Stastny. On Saturday, he scored his first goal since returning from a forearm injury. Stastny is going to take things to the next level over the rest of the season and elevate those around him. He is still available in about 10 percent of ESPN leagues.
Atlanta Thrashers: We can pin down the Thrashers' play of late to two words: Kari Lehtonen. I won't wax long on this subject, instead just pointing you to Thursday's blog entry from my colleague Tim Kavanagh, who hits the nail squarely on the head by anointing Lehtonen one of the great pickups down the stretch.
I'll instead spend some time pointing out that only two of Atlanta's five straight wins have been shutouts, and that means someone has to score some goals to get the W. Bryan Little hasn't scored all the goals, but he sure does get in on a lot of them. He has five points during this five-game streak, and 13 points in his past 13 games. Little, Todd White and Slava Kozlov (the Little-White-Russian line) have been the perfect complement for Ilya Kovalchuk and Rich Peverley on the top unit. You will find Little, Kozlov, Peverley and White available in many ESPN leagues, and you should start looking for them in that order.
New York Islanders: "We're not an easy two points anymore," says coach Scott Gordon, and his assessment of his own team is quite astute. The Isles have points in nine of their past 12 contests and in that span have overwhelmed such opponents as New Jersey (twice), Chicago, Montreal and Buffalo. Plus, they gave Pittsburgh and Boston a real run for their money.
The play of late can be boiled down to Gordon's taking the reins off young budding stars like Okposo, Josh Bailey, Mike Iggulden, Sean Bergenheim and Jeff Tambellini. Those names are the future of this team and will be the core that the front office builds around for a fresh start next season. So why not let them loose and see what they can do? That's exactly what is happening.
Okposo has points in four straight games. Iggulden has five points in six games since being recalled from the AHL. Bergenheim has a hat trick on the books this month. Tambellini has five points in eight March games, which is pretty good when you consider that he went pointless in February.
Then there is goaltender Yann Danis, who has stepped in to fill Rick DiPietro's big shoes and made most Islanders fans forget about the 15-year contract (well, at least try to forget about the 15-year contract). Danis has allowed more than two goals just once in his past nine starts.
Brian Elliott has played very well between the pipes. He hit the rookie wall in late February, but has strung together a personal five-game win streak and looks to be the team's netminder going forward. Elliot should provide some nice padding to your goalie stats if you want to stream in a third goaltender to chase wins.
Up front, it's Nick Foligno, Mike Fisher and Ryan Shannon whom you'll want to consider in deep leagues (in that order). By splitting up the trio of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, the Sens are seeing some balanced results. Alfie and Spezza are lining up with Foligno, who has three goals this month, while Heatley is complementing Fisher and Shannon, who are also chipping in subtly.
It's Chris Campoli who has been the real find for Ottawa, though. Since coming over in a trade with the Islanders, Campoli has eight points in 11 games. He may seem unappealing because he is minus-19 for the season, but remember he was minus-20 when he left the Isles, so he is actually plus-1 as a Senator.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Quite a roll for Toronto, which has points in 10 of its past 13 games. Unfortunately, the playoffs are still a long way off because most of that momentum was lost March 4, when Vesa Toskala went down for the season and Martin Gerber was brought in to tend goal. Still, the Leafs are scoring goals despite shipping off Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore at the trade deadline. Left as two of the top options on the club, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Lee Stempniak have taken over ownership of the offense.
Ponikarovsky has nine points, including seven assists, in seven games this month. Stempniak has a point in five of the six games Toronto has played since the trade deadline. Matt Stajan and Mikhail Grabovski seem to be splitting duties as the team's top centerman, so neither has enough value to warrant use in most leagues.
As for Gerber, just stay away. He is the type of goaltender who can limit goals just enough for the offense to try to win. Despite a 3-2 record as a Leaf, his goals-against average is 3.20 and there is a disturbing trend to the number of goals he has allowed in each game: 1, 3, 2, 4, 6.
Sean Allen is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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