If you want to be a playoff team, you won’t get too far without beating the teams you should beat. But apparently that memo has yet to reach the Ottawa Senators.
It’s hard to complain with the results thus far – a 33-22-6 record, holding down second seed in the Atlantic Division through 61 games and a shot at catching the first-place Montreal Canadiens – but the journey there hasn’t been without its share of grief and headache-inducing moments.
Playing to the Competition
Facing the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins or any other of the league’s best teams can either bring out the best in teams or send them away hanging their heads in despair. Strange as it may seem, considering their struggles against some of the league’s worst teams, the Sens have had an innate ability to play up to the class of the league.
Against the top five teams in the league (Washington, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Chicago as of March 2), the Sens have compiled a 4-3-2 record. That record includes two shutouts against the Capitals and Blue Jackets, two of the highest scoring teams in the league, and could have been even better if not for two losses to the Caps by a combined 3-1 margin.
But look beyond the best-of-the-best matchups and the trend holds true for the Sens – they seem to play their best hockey against teams that are performing well. In February alone they took down the Islanders in the midst of their torrid streak, the Leafs (a surprising success story in 2016-17) and the Panthers, who have climbed into the playoff bubble since firing Gerard Gallant.
Unfortunately for the Sens, the quality that allows them to raise their game to the level of superior opponents is also true of their tendency to play down to the weaker teams. Their game Feb. 24 against the Carolina Hurricanes – who, at the time, were in last place in the Eastern Conference – serves as a perfect example of this effect.
In one of their worst games this season, they gave up 44 shots, including 19 in the first period alone, and looked lethargic and overmatched in the eventual 3-0 shutout. Maybe it’s not as much of a surprise when you consider the Sens also went just 1-4-0 against the Sabres this season (their only win coming via the shootout) and has yet to pick up a win in two games against the lowly Red Wings. But it’s still inexcusable.
Change of Fortune
As mentioned, the Sens are within striking distance of first place in the division – though barely so, sitting six points out with three games in hand – and yet they’re no closer to getting any playoff security in the ultra tight east. At present, the only non-playoff team with a realistic shot at catching them in the division (the Tampa Bay Lightning) sits just six points behind.
The good news is the Sens still hold games in hand on many of the teams chasing them, but the bad news is their remaining schedule is unfavourable in the most ironic way. Almost half (10 of 21) of Ottawa’s remaining games come against opponents who presently sit outside the playoff picture, which doesn’t bode well if the aforementioned trend continues.
Sure, the Sens have played well against playoff teams to this point, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to solidify their place in the standings in the 11 games they have left against those teams. Sooner or later – if you have any rooting interest in the Sens, you’re no doubt hoping it’s sooner – the Sens will have to reverse this trend to create some breathing room in the postseason chase.
Avalanche have been outscored 66-34 in first, 65-46 in second, 69-35 in third. The good news? They're 6-2 in overtime
— Ken Warren (@Citizenkwarren) March 2, 2017
They capitalized on their first chance Thursday night, beating the last-place Avalanche by a 2-1 final in their first of two meetings in 10 days. But the real test, if the Sens haven’t yet clinched a postseason berth, could come in April when four of their final six games will come against non-playoff teams.
Sens Decide Their Fate
It’s not exactly a secret that each team plays a hand in deciding its playoff fate, but that statement carries a little more weight than usual with the Sens. They play three games in eight days against the Canadiens (beginning March 18), which will have massive implication on the race for the Atlantic title, but they can also put some distance between themselves and the teams chasing them.
The Sens have three games remaining against the Bruins, as well as a lone matchup with the Lightning, which could lessen the stress of the final few weeks of the season if they can get a couple of wins. With that many opportunities to solidify, if not improve their chance of making the playoffs, the Sens will have no one to blame but themselves if they end up on the outside looking in at season’s end.
And with some reinforcements in tow, the Sens look to have the depth to handle a playoff run.
Andrew is a sports nerd extraordinaire. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism, as well as a journalism diploma, and has been in the sports writing biz for the past four years (previously with Hooked on Hockey Magazine and SportsEh). He has experience covering junior hockey and the Women’s World Hockey Championships in Ottawa. Feel free to reach him on Twitter @littelitaly93.