The latter have won two in a row, including an impressive win against a hot New York Islanders team in their most recent game. The former have lost two in a row, seven of their last 10 and, in the process, their stranglehold on first place in the Atlantic Division.
If the Sens have any realistic hopes of catching their rivals in the standings, the next five days will go a long way in helping or hurting their cause. The two are separated by just six points in the standings and the Sens have two upcoming games against the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils that, on paper, they should win.
On paper being the operative words there, because while neither opponent holds a threatening position in the standings – the two are tied for 13th in the conference with 56 points – both have proven formidable foes this season.
The Sabres, in fact, have owned the Sens in 2016-17. In four meetings, they hold a 3-0-1 record and have outscored Ottawa 12-6, including a 4-0 shutout win Feb. 4. While Ottawa has only played the Devils once this year, it was a close 3-1 win in which they edged New Jersey in shots by a slim 31-30 margin.
Should they find a way to win both games, the Sens will sit just two points out of first place by the time the Habs play their next game Feb. 18, heaping another helping of pressure onto an already full plate for Montreal. But even with a slimmed down deficit in the divisional standings the task won’t be an easy one for Ottawa.
Hitting the Road
Beginning with their Feb. 16 date with the Devils, six of the Sens’ remaining seven games in the month of February will be played away from the Canadian Tire Centre. Looking at the bigger picture, the same trend holds true – 18 of their final 29 games are on the road, which will be a good test of their mettle.
Fortunately for the Sens they have thus far put up a respectable record of 13-10-0 away from home (.565 points percentage), a record that is on par with that of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. But make no mistake, winning on the road is no easy feat – especially given some of the opponents they’ll be facing.
Seven of the road games they will play between now and the end of the season are against six of the best teams in terms of record at home (they have to face Montreal at the Bell Centre twice), including the surprising Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars. Looking beyond their home-road splits, Ottawa’s strength of schedule projects favourably for their playoff chances.
Only eight of Ottawa’s games between now and the end of the season come against teams who presently occupy a playoff spot, and almost half (14 of 29) come against teams in the bottom third of the league’s standings. While these also project as on-paper victories, they are also prime “trap game” candidates, so the Sens will have to do their best not to fall into a lull.
Ottawa’s Best Must be at Their Best
If the Senators have any hopes of catching the Canadiens – or, at the very least, keeping a top-three spot in the Atlantic – they’ll need to get contributions from their best players. Secondary scoring is a great asset come postseason, but the job of carrying the Sens offensively in the interim shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the likes of Tom Pyatt and Chris Kelly.
Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris have been effective all year long, hence their position as 1-2-3 in the team scoring race. But they need more from players such as Mike Hoffman who, while tied for third on the team in points, is known to be streaky and has had notable second-half slumps each of the past two seasons.
Derick Brassard, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Bobby Ryan, meanwhile, have plain-and-simple failed to meet expectations this season. Pageau has just 20 points, which is slightly more forgivable when you consider how he affects the game in other areas – faceoffs, penalty killing, etc. – but is a number that should still be higher at this point in the season.
"I don't coach salaries, I coach players." Boucher on Bobby Ryan.
— Wayne Scanlan (@HockeyScanner) February 14, 2017
Brassard was supposed to be the answer to Ryan’s offensive woes in Ottawa, but neither has flourished as the former has 27 points, while the latter has just 21. Ryan’s performance is particularly disappointing as he is on pace to finish with only 19 goals and 37 points and has seen an unofficial demotion from scorer to shutdown winger.
In the crease, it’s tough to expect Craig Anderson to immediately return to his pre-absence form, but a shutout in his first game back was a good place to start. And should he falter, the Sens can always fall back on Mike Condon who has shown he can handle the rigors of the starter’s job.
It’s not often teams get this kind of opportunity to make up ground at such a crucial point in the season, so the Sens need to make the best of it or they may not get another opportunity to catch the Canadiens.