Think back to six weeks ago.
In fact, let’s go back to Feb. 11.
The Ottawa Senators had just been soundly beaten by the Winnipeg Jets. The 5-1 loss gave the Senators a record of 2-12-1. They were in last place in the NHL’s North Division, and the thought of climbing out of the basement of the NHL’s overall standings seemed out of reach. At the time, it looked like there was no way the Sens could catch the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks or San Jose Sharks.
But then, something happened. A big goal here, a lucky bounce there, add in some much-needed consistent goaltending, and the Senators became a competitive team.
In fact, if you look at the NHL North Division standings from Feb. 11 through March 26, the Ottawa Senators would be a playoff team. The Toronto Maple Leafs, though they have two games in hand, are two points behind Ottawa during that stretch. The Leafs are fifth in North Division since Feb. 11, while the Senators and Vancouver Canucks would be tied for third with 23 points. The Edmonton Oilers have 24 points since that date, and the Winnipeg Jets have 27. The Montreal Canadiens have 19 points since Feb. 11, and the Calgary Flames have 18.
Of course, these hypothetical standings don’t take into consideration games played. Aside from Toronto having two games in hand on Ottawa, Montreal has four. Chances are that the Sens would get bumped out of the top four.
But the point is that the Sens are keeping up with the big boys. In fact, since Feb. 11, they are 10-8-3. The Leafs are 10-8-1.
Win Over Jets
The turnaround started with a pair of big and unlikely wins. On Feb. 13, Brady Tkachuk scored with 8.2 seconds left to give the Sens a 2-1 win on the road against the Winnipeg Jets. Two nights later, the Senators pulled off the biggest comeback win in their team history as they stunned the Toronto Maple Leafs and pulled out a 6-5 victory.
This week ended with Ottawa’s fourth and fifth string goalies, Filip Gustavsson and Anton Forsberg, leading the team to a 3-1 win over Calgary and a 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto. After picking up a point in the loss to Toronto, the Senators have picked up at least one point in their last six games.
Senators coach D.J. Smith has said more than once during the six-week stretch that the team is playing with more confidence. That is one of the most obvious factors in the Senators’ turnaround. But confidence is a by-product of doing many of the other things in their game well.
Goaltending Depth Shines
With the possible exception of a strong performance by Matt Murray against Montreal for the Senators’ second win of the season, Ottawa’s goalies had not outright stolen any wins until Filip Forsberg took a game from the Flames on March 24. Opposition goalies, meanwhile, had stolen wins from Ottawa. Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets and Thatcher Demko of the Canucks are two obvious ones that come to mind.
Poor play at the start of the season from their top two goaltenders saw the Senators dig themselves in early holes game after game. Matt Murray, who is still expected to be a cornerstone of the Senators’ rebuild, had a better February than January. But even with the improvement, his numbers are at the bottom of the NHL for starting goalies. His goals-against average is 3.84 and his save percentage is .880.
Backup goalie Marcus Hogberg really struggled early in the season, and at times appeared to lose the net while play was in the Ottawa end. His numbers in 10 games played are cringe-worthy for Sens fans, as he has posted a 4.34 GAA and an .859 SV%.
The bottom line was that both goalies were susceptible to letting in soft goals, and neither consistently gave their team a chance to win.
Joey Daccord stepped in and looked like the answer to Ottawa’s goaltending problems. In eight games, he had a 1-3-1 record with a much more palatable 3.28 GAA and .897 SV%. Unfortunately, his season ended with a knee injury, and it was time for goalies No. 4 and 5 to get some playing time.
Gustavsson has been lights out since he has been called up to the Senators. In three games, he has a 2-0-1 record with a .973 SV% and a 0.86 GAA. Forsberg, in his one start against Toronto, has a 2.77 GAA and a .927 SV%.
The emergence of their goaltending depth will challenge Senators’ general manager Pierre Dorion when he has to decide which goalie to protect for this year’s expansion draft.
While the goaltending has helped, the defensive play has helped as well. Defenceman Thomas Chabot is chewing up 30 minutes of ice time more often than not, and has been an anchor on the blue line. Artem Zub has emerged as a steady defenceman, and Mike Reilly’s game has shown great improvements since the beginning of the season.
Offensively, the young stars that are the cornerstones of the rebuild are the players who are producing. Tkachuk and Drake Batherson both have 11 goals. Josh Norris has emerged as at least a top-two centre and might be a Calder Trophy candidate. Tim Stutzle, meanwhile, has emerged as a future superstar with 19 points in 33 games as a 19-year-old.
There is still a lot of room for improvement on this team. Evgenii Dadonov, through 36 games, has only 12 points with nine goals and just three assists. The guy brought in to spark the power play has just one assist with a man advantage this season, despite getting first-unit playing time. If Dadonov can find his game and the young stars continue to improve, the future is getting brighter by the minute for the Senators.
After their slow start, the Senators are not likely to have a shot at getting close to a playoff spot. But, by the time fans are allowed back in Canadian Tire Centre, this team will be much better than what fans have seen in person over the last couple of seasons.
Jeff Morris has been a hockey writer for more than 30 years. He began his career working for small town newspapers in Eastern Ontario before becoming the editor of Canadian Sports Collector magazine in St. Catharines, ON. While there, he also freelanced as a Buffalo Sabres beat writer. Morris would move on to Dallas to become the NHL brand manager at Pinnacle Brands, Inc. From there, he worked in the sports trading card and collectibles division at Shop At Home TV in Nashville and Denver, and then moved to Seattle to be the VP of Marketing at Pacific Trading Cards, Inc. in Seattle. He had continued to cover the NHL as a freelance writer, and while in Seattle, he became a weekly hockey columnist for ESPN.com. During the 2005 NHL lockout, he returned to Ottawa and became a newspaper and magazine publisher and editor, and was also an NHL contributor for Fox Sports Radio. He also began covering the NHL for Hockeyology.com, and also covered the Ottawa Senators for his own publications. He went to Carleton University to study journalism, and graduated as the school’s all-time scoring leader in football and was a conference all-star three times. He had several pro tryouts and played semi-pro football for 10 years while pursuing his career as an NHL writer. He remains involved in football as a coach and referee, and is a Canadian Football League off-field official.