The season is over.
It’s been a long one, Ottawa. No one could blame you for wanting to take a little break from hockey right now: the lottery was undoubtedly depressing, and who wants to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs do better than you? But before you succumb to a special case of seasonal depression, I offer you something else to grab your attention:
The AHL Playoff Race.
With two games remaining in the regular season, the Belleville Senators are a point away from clinching a playoff spot. After an influx of talent from the parent club, the little Sens are primed to make some noise in a short amount of time. For Senators fans, it offers some exciting spring hockey, while also giving a good indication of the future of the franchise. You don’t want to miss it.
The Toronto Marlies
The little Sens only have two games to catch the Cleveland Monsters, and they won’t be easy. The first game is the second in a home-and-away series with the Toronto Marlies, who are already a lock for the playoffs with 88 points. They possess a strong team, with Jeremy Bracco leading the AHL in scoring right now with 77 points and Calle Rosen fifth in defensive scoring with 46 points in 54 games. Top prospects Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have also looked good, although both missed significant chunks of the season with injury. In their first match-up of the series, the Marlies took home the closely-fought match with a score of 3-2.
However, in the 10 previous match-ups between the division rivals, Belleville has come out on top seven times and outscored their opponent 46-37. The biggest issue for the Marlies this season has been goaltending, with only Michael Hutchinson having a save percentage above .900 (0.910), and the Sens have exploited that all season. With Hutchinson most likely joining the Maple Leafs for the post-season, Belleville will have an even greater opportunity to boost their point total.
The Rochester Americans
The final game comes against another rival, the Rochester Americans. They’ve been much stronger this season, putting together 96 points and securing second in the North Division and third in the Eastern Conference. They’ve been led by Victor Olofsson, who’s scored 27 goals and 60 points in 68 games, but have recently also been joined by Lawrence Pilut, who played 33 games with the Buffalo Sabres this season, and Tage Thompson, who’s played nearly the entire season with the parent club.
Then there’s Alexander Nylander, who has begun to justify his lofty first-round selection this season (eighth overall in 2016) with 31 points in 49 games, and Rasmus Asplund, who’s had a great North American debut season, scoring 38 points. There’s a ton of talent throughout the roster, and the Americans have proved that they’re one of the top teams in the AHL this year.
Still, Belleville has found their weaknesses. In their three meetings, the little Sens have won two and lost the other in overtime. Like the Marlies, goaltending has been suspect, as Scott Wedgewood has only put up a .906 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average over 47 games, despite the team’s success. And while the Sabres are not in the playoffs, the Americans are getting very little support from them in the final stretch; along with Pilut and Thompson, only Matt Tennyson and Will Borgen are joining the Amerks, and they’ve been quite average in the AHL this season.
Plenty of Incoming Talent
Unlike Rochester and Toronto, the Senators are getting lots of help from their parent club for this last stretch. The biggest addition will be Christian Wolanin, who played 30 games with Ottawa this season. While his NHL showing was respectable, albeit nothing special, his AHL play has been outstanding. From the blue line, he’s contributed 27 points in just 37 games. Joining him is also Rudolfs Balcers, who joined the team after the Erik Karlsson trade. The Latvian has been exciting to watch, scoring 14 points over 36 NHL games. He’s been a proven scorer everywhere he’s played, and now Belleville gets back the deadly sniper.
Several other Sens were given a taste of the NHL this season, with Andreas Englund, Erik Brannstrom, Vitali Abramov and Filip Chlapik all suiting up for Ottawa over the season. That’s a huge influx of talent to the roster that should translate well. They’ll be joining Drake Batherson, Jack Rodewald, Logan Brown and Nick Paul, giving the Sens a lethal roster all itching to play a bit more hockey this season.
Goaltender Marcus Hogberg has also been given a few games in Ottawa this year, and although they went poorly, it’s hardly his fault. As Belleville’s starter this season, Hogberg has a .919 save percentage over 36 games. To compare, league leader Mikhail Berdin, playing for the Manitoba Moose, has a .929 save percentage over 22 games. That places Hogberg as one of the best starters this season, and he also has a lower goals-against average (2.25) than most of his closest competition.
This is a much preferable situation to that of the Monsters, who have to take on the Charlotte Checkers twice and the Marlies once before the season ends. With the Columbus Blue Jackets preparing for some difficult series, they’ve held on to the likes of Alexandre Texier, Andrew Peeke, Eric Robinson, and Elvis Merzlikins, leaving Cleveland to fend off the toughest team in the AHL all on their own. The Checkers currently sit atop the standings with 106 points, 49 wins, and only 17 regulation losses. For Cleveland to get some valuable wins over them, they’ll have to hope for a miracle.
Should Belleville make the AHL Playoffs, they’ll be facing off against the Syracuse Crunch, who’s given the Sens plenty of trouble over the season. But that’s a problem for another day. Right now, it’s all about securing those final two points, and by the looks of things, the Sens have a good chance to do so.
Finally, a playoff race to look forward to.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.