Throughout the 28 seasons of the current iteration of the Ottawa Senators, the team has made the playoffs 16 times for a 57 percent regular season success rate (as defined by making the playoffs in this case). As an expansion franchise in the 1992-93 season, the organization saw gradual development until making their first appearance in the playoffs in 1997. Impressively, the Senators made the playoffs for 11 straight seasons after. This run included six first-round losses, a run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2003, and the franchise’s first and only appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. With 16 first-round series to consider, I’ve compiled the top three first-round team performances in franchise history.
Oddly enough, not since their first four seasons as a franchise have they missed the playoffs for three or more consecutive seasons until the breakdown and rebuild process began in 2017-18. But before this most recent stretch of playoff absences, the Senators were a regular playoff presence even if they lost in the first round, which they did nine times.
Of the nine first-round losses, they finished the season in fifth place or lower in the Eastern Conference seven times. I combed through those nine losses just to see if there were any standout performances that should be considered. There were a couple of gut-wrenching blown series leads where the Senators were up 3-2 (1997 against the Buffalo Sabres and in 2012 to the New York Rangers), but there was nothing to warrant including as an overlooked or underrated performance. Let’s focus on the wins.
Of their seven first-round wins, they finished the season fourth place or higher three times, fifth or lower three times and a second-place divisional finish (sixth place in the conference in 2016-17) as the outlier that fits in both categories or neither depending on how you see it. For the most part, they’ve met the expectations of their regular season positions when they enter the first round of the playoffs, save for two times on the losing end of an upset (one at the hands of a seventh-place but Stanley Cup finalist Buffalo Sabres team in 1999 and a seventh-place Toronto Maple Leafs team in 2001), and the three times as winners of an upset that are featured below.
3. 2002 vs. Philadelphia Flyers (Senators Won Series 4-1)
For the franchise’s second first-round series win, a seventh-seeded Senators team played their way to victory over the second-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. The seeding here is misleading, however, because the Senators only finished three points back of the Flyers who wrapped up the season with 97 points. The Senators were placed seventh in the conference because they finished third in their division, well behind the conference-leading Boston Bruins (101 points) and the Maple Leafs (100 points) and just behind the New York Islanders (96 points) and the New Jersey Devils (95 points).
The Flyers were getting a difficult matchup in the Senators who had a nearly identical home record during the season (21 wins and 13 losses for the Senators to the Flyers’ 20 wins and 13 losses) and a goal differential on the season of plus-35 to Philadelphia’s plus-42. Interestingly, the Senators finished with nine more goals on the season with 243 and ended the first-round series with nine more goals than the Flyers.
Whatever was ailing the Flyers in their final 10 games of the season, going 2-7-1, continued to hamper their efforts in the playoffs. The Senators nearly shutout the Flyers throughout the entire series. With one overtime goal in Game 1 to win 1-0, the Flyers only put up one other goal, which came in Game 5 when they were eliminated 2-1 on an overtime goal from Martin Havlat. The Senators’ top-four point producers, including Daniel Alfredsson, Radek Bonk, Marian Hossa, and Havlat, all showed up for the series and helped the team to three consecutive 3-0 wins after their Game 1 loss.
It was the defensive dominance that stood out, however, and is no clearer than in Patrick Lalime’s three shutout performances and .985 save percentage (SV%) for the series. The Flyers just weren’t ready for a Senators team that came to play. The Senators lost a tough series to provincial rivals the Maple Leafs in the second round, but built on this experience on their way to the Conference Finals in 2003.
2. 2013 vs. Montréal Canadiens (Senators Won Series 4-1)
In 2012, the Senators grabbed the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and lost in the first-round to the New York Rangers. The following season (shortened to 48 games), they managed to place seventh in the conference and draw the second-place Montréal Canadiens. If the teams played a full 82-game season, there’s reason to believe that the Senators could have climbed up the standings, as they were only one point back of the fifth-place Maple Leafs and seven points back of the Canadiens. Their goal differential wasn’t horrible (plus-12 to the Canadiens plus-23), but they had the fewest number of goals of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams at 116. This plays into the significance of this series win because the Senators were able to overcome this offensive challenge and score 20 goals over the five games, while holding the Canadiens to nine.
Goaltenders Carey Price and Peter Budaj struggled for the Canadiens (with .894 SV% and .774 SV%, respectively) and Ottawa took advantage, scoring four or more goals in three of their four wins, including two 6-1 wins. Twelve different players scored for the Senators, with Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Kyle Turris, and Cory Conacher leading the way with three each. The key Swedes, Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson, led the team in points with six each.
A 31-year-old Craig Anderson outdueled a 25-year-old Price and 30-year-old Budaj. He faced 180 shots, which was 26 more than the combined 154 faced by Price and Budaj, and made 171 saves. This gave Anderson a remarkably good .950 SV% for the series. He never let in more than two goals in a game and only let in more than one on two occasions, but in both cases the Senators put up enough offence to pull out a win. For the second-place Canadiens, it was a difficult loss to comprehend. The Senators had a tough time with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the next round, but this first-round upset was special and meant just a little bit more since it came at the expense of a close division and geographic rival.
1. 1998 vs. New Jersey Devils (Senators Won Series 4-2)
Senators fans could not have expected a first-round victory in 1998. The New Jersey Devils finished first in the Eastern Conference, were only two points back of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Dallas Stars, and were only three seasons removed from their Stanley Cup Championship in 1995. On the other hand, the Senators finished eighth in the conference and were only in the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
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With a key defensive focus, the heavy underdog Senators managed to shut down Bobby Holik and Scott Niedermayer, the Devils’ top scorers throughout the season. Holik must have been dealing with an injury and only played in five of six games. Doug Gilmour tried to singlehandedly carry the Devils’ offence with seven points (five goals and two assists), four more points than anyone else on the team, but the Senators’ key offensive players in Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson scored in key moments to match Gilmour’s production. They also received some unexpected support from players, such as Bruce Gardiner and Janne Laukkanen, who scored and set up the overtime winner in Game 1, respectively.
Damian Rhodes also managed to outplay a 25-year-old Martin Brodeur just enough to help the Senators win the tight, low-scoring games (except for a 4-3 Sens win in Game 4). Although the shots against (SA) and saves (SV) stat lines are quite similar (164 SA and 152 SV for Brodeur, while Rhodes had 173 SA and 162 SV) and the save percentages are close (Brodeur at .927 percent and Rhodes at .936 percent), the extra goal needed to win happened to slip by Brodeur more often in this series. The Senators lost the second-round series 4-1 against the Stanley Cup finalist Washington Capitals, but this was the franchise’s first playoff-round win and they completed the task in memorable fashion as the eighth seed.
Honourable Mention: 2017 vs. Boston Bruins (Senators Won Series 4-2)
The Senators finished second in the division, three points ahead of the third-place Bruins. Oddly, the Senators were the only playoff team to finish with a negative goal differential that season of minus-2 and finished with a lower regulation points percentage of .537 percent to the Bruins’ .543 percent. The teams were evenly matched, but the Sens dug deep to pull out four incredibly tight wins. Every game in that series was decided by one goal and the Senators had to rely on three overtime wins, including winners from Dion Phaneuf, Bobby Ryan, and Clarke MacArthur. To top it off, who can forget the incredible Karlsson flip pass from behind the goal line to Mike Hoffman at the Bruins’ blue line in Game 3?
Let me know what you think of the selections or continue the reminiscing in the comment section below.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Journalism degree from UKC, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.