Each of the 30 NHL teams now has fewer than 30 games remaining in the 2015-16 season. For fantasy owners, that means the clock is ticking and options are limited.
With that said, injury absences/returns, line adjustments and corresponding changes in player usage can always be game-changers when it comes to late-season fantasy upside. Here are five players, each owned in 25 percent or fewer Yahoo leagues, who have surfaced in the past week and could be fantasy difference-makers down the stretch:
Benoit Pouliot, LW, Edmonton Oilers
Yahoo ownership: 15 percent
X-factor: Connor McDavid's return
Pouliot has been a fantasy weapon since McDavid's return, with strong totals in five of the six standard categories. He has two goals, eight assists, a plus-5, two power-play points and 12 SOG in six games this month alongside the rookie phenom. While his two home games in that stretch were against bottom-five teams in the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 2 and Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, he totaled six points in those games. The Oilers have 15 games remaining at Rexall Place, compared to 11 on the road, and seven of those home games are against teams currently on the outside looking in of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It remains to be seen how Edmonton will approach the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline, but the third wheel on the line featuring McDavid and Jordan Eberle has become a first-rate fantasy option.
Ryan Strome, C/RW, New York Islanders
Yahoo ownership: 13 percent
X-factor: Top-line spot next to John Tavares
Strome has run out of time to match his 50-point total from 2014-15, but that doesn't mean he can't salvage the final 29 games of the Islanders' season if he sticks in a prime spot next to Tavares. Strome has points in three straight games with a plus-4 and seven SOG in that span. He's averaging under two SOG per game this season (81 in 42 games), a step back from his career average (2.2 per game), but has bounced around the lineup for much of the season and even spent time in the American Hockey League. He's averaging 18 minutes per game in his past three, and the slow-starting Tavares has ignited offensively with points in nine of his past 11 games (five goals, nine assists in span). Strome is currently on the second power-play unit, but offers first-line exposure at even strength, dual eligibility, and, most importantly, sparse ownership.
Video: DAL@CHI: Eaves records hat trick in the 1st period
Patrick Eaves, LW/RW, Dallas Stars
Yahoo ownership: 5 percent
X-factor: Jason Spezza's injury
Other than Patrick Sharp's 12-game point streak from Dec. 19 to Jan. 9, we have not seen much continuity in the right wing slot alongside two of the NHL's top point producers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. But since Spezza was placed on injured reserve last Friday with an upper-body injury, Eaves has seized that RW spot and could hold it even if/when Spezza returns leading up to the postseason. With the injury, Sharp dropped down in the lineup and Eaves has emerged as a first-line, top power-play force for the Stars. Eaves had a hat trick with six SOG Thursday at the Chicago Blackhawks, marking his fourth straight game with at least one point. In that span, the 31-year-old has four goals, three assists, four penalty minutes, three PPP and 14 SOG. In his past three games, he's averaging more than three minutes per game with the man-advantage. That would be altered once Spezza is back in the mix, but this even-strength opportunity alongside an elite point pair is something fantasy owners can't ignore.
Jake Gardiner, D, Toronto Maple Leafs
Yahoo ownership: 4 percent
X-factor: Dion Phaneuf trade
Gardiner, 25, played 25:40 and 19:06 in his first two games after Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators, scoring a goal in each of those games with a total of three SOG. The Maple Leafs will likely have more player movement leading up to the trade deadline, but Gardiner is worth taking a chance on given his expanded role because the defenseman position in year-long leagues is extremely thin. Gardiner saw 4:55 with the man-advantage Thursday after 1:41 on Tuesday, a sign Morgan Rielly (26 percent owned; three PPP) will have competition in those situations. Gardiner actually had more PPP (eight) than Phaneuf (seven) prior to the trade, so the fact he's higher in the pecking order is enough to warrant a pickup in deep leagues.
Video: TBL@MTL: Scrivens makes a fine catch on Carle's shot
Ben Scrivens, G, Montreal Canadiens
Yahoo ownership: 21 percent
X-factor: Uncertainty surrounding Carey Price's injury
Price hasn't played since Nov. 25 because of a lower-body injury, and his status for the rest of the regular season remains unknown. The Canadiens are three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference with two more games played, so their postseason chances are in jeopardy. On the bright side, Scrivens is confirmed to start Friday at the Buffalo Sabres, his fourth straight for Montreal. He has won three in a row with a .963 even-strength save percentage in that span. His ownership was under 10 percent two days ago but has now risen to 21 percent after my colleague David Satriano featured him Thursday in his goalie rankings. Can Scrivens keep this up? Fantasy owners in dire need of goalie starts can't worry about that question. Price's recovery is taking longer than expected, and Scrivens is in position to handle the bulk of the workload.