“This was not supposed to happen,” NHL on TSN host James Duthie declared on behalf of the hockey world.
The target of his statement? The Ottawa Senators, aka the NHL’s forgotten team. The only squad to qualify for the 2017 postseason with a negative goal differential – albeit just a minus-two – playing an entirely new system in their first year with new head coach Guy Boucher, that Ottawa even finished outside the Atlantic Division’s bottom two was a surprise to many.
But here we are – May 11, 2017, two days after the Sens punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference final with a 4-2 series victory that inspired Duthie’s strong words. And yet rather than being celebrated for making it to the final four, all anyone wants to talk about is the apparent luck – not skill – that put them in this position.
Know Your Opponent
The prevailing theme in the immediate aftermath of each of Ottawa’s two series wins has been the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers each failed in some crucial aspect of the game that eventually allowed the Senators to win. But what hasn’t gotten much attention is what the Sens did to allow themselves to be victorious.
Round One: Boston
Contrary to what many post-mortems suggested, the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak didn’t disappear against Ottawa – they combined for 47 shots and 12 points – but were rendered ineffective at even strength. Pastrnak didn’t record an even-strength shot all series (Bergeron and Marchand combined for 20) and eight of their 12 points came at even strength.
Speaking of, the Senators found a way to win the five-on-five battle that Boston was so heavily favoured in, outshot attempting the Bruins by a 292-288 margin. That obviously isn’t domination, but it went against the grain of what many in the analytics community had anticipated and proved the Sens were successful in beating the Bruins at their own game.
Special teams play was another area that was heavily slanted in Boston’s favour as the Bruins were unquestionably the far superior team in that regard during the regular season. Though neither team performed exceptionally well when up or down a man relative to the other 14 teams, the Senators finished with better power play and penalty kill percentages than the Bruins.
The Senators’ penalty killing was a strength for much of the season, despite falling to 22nd by season’s end, so there wasn’t much concern with the shorthanded units. But the power play was a consistent, puzzling source of frustration throughout 2016-17, so the fact they were able to get it going when the stakes were highest says all you need to know about this team.
Round Two: New York
The Rangers, in many respects, posed almost the exact same challenge to the Senators that Boston did. Based on the regular season numbers, the only areas in which the Sens had the advantage were in goals against and faceoff percentage, but Henrik Lundqvist’s play in the first round dispelled any notion of his not being up to the task of playing elite-level hockey.
The bigger challenge for the Senators, beyond solving an in-his-prime-looking Lundqvist, would be stopping a Rangers offence that was one of the deepest in the league. No player reached the 60-point plateau (Mats Zuccarello came close at 59) but in all the rangers had 15 players crack 20 points, 11 who hit the 30-point mark, seven with at least 40 points and four who eclipsed 50 points.
In fairness, their defensive play failed them as they allowed 20 goals in six games, but it didn’t matter because they were able to do what the Canadiens couldn’t – beat Lundqvist. They struck for 19 goals (including separate six- and five-goal games), which is impressive enough considering their defence-first, offence-when-convenient style, but it was the timing of their goals that was even more impressive.
Ottawa scored the game-winning or game-tying goal in the final minutes of the third period three times in the series, showing shades of the pesky Sens from just a few years ago. The Rangers apparently threw away a “golden opportunity” to reach the conference final by blowing those late leads, but let’s not chalk up Ottawa’s late-game and overtime heroics to just luck – after all, they did the same thing to Boston.
Of course, if you’ve followed the Sens at all throughout their playoff run – or even the regular season, for that matter – you know Erik Karlsson is doing things this season many players at his position could only dream of doing. His 13 points through 12 games are tied for sixth in playoff scoring and his 11 assists trail only Evgeni Malkin’s 13.
It’s not just the sheer volume of points, but the way he’s recording them that has people fawning over Karlsson. His performance in Game 3 of Ottawa’s series against Boston provided numerous highlights and is one of the best single-game performances from these playoffs, while the final two crucial games against the Rangers were also two of his best.
He posted five points in those two games, including helpers on the tying and winning goals in Game 5 and scoring the eventual game-winner in the series-clincher. It’s been the story of the first two rounds for the Sens: Whenever his team has been in need of a lift, Karlsson has been there to provide it emphatically.
It’s laughable in some respects, but as TSN1200 radio announcer Ian Mendes put it, the 2017 postseason has been something of a coming out party (an unnecessary one at that) for the man who is without question the best defenceman in the league. Consider once again the fact he is basically playing on one foot and it puts into perspective the performance that has garnered him some Conn Smythe buzz.
Ottawa’s detractors would likely say the Senators aren’t a final four team without Karlsson – especially so, the way he’s playing right now – but it would be a mistake to condense the Senators down to Karlsson and 17 other skaters. The likes of Derick Brassard and Bobby Ryan have been stellar thus far, and while Karlsson has had a hand in theirs and others’ success, he alone has not put Ottawa in the conference final.
One aspect of Ottawa’s game that gets consistently overlooked but has been instrumental in the team’s success throughout the regular season and playoffs is the play of Craig Anderson. As is common knowledge now, Anderson missed a significant chunk of the season but still had the second-best save percentage among qualified goalies at .926 and eighth best GAA at 2.28.
Despite his great regular season, Anderson was overlooked in each of the Senators’ first two playoff matchups as he went toe-to-toe with Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask respectively. Though his .914 playoff save percentage isn’t impressive by any means, it doesn’t reflect the kind of effort he has put forth – many games would have gone sideways for the Sens if Anderson was even marginally off his game.
Fortunately for Anderson, of the six games in which he has posted a sub-.900 save percentage his team has bailed him out with four wins. But more often than not it’s Anderson who has been bailing his teammates out, helping him pad the most important stat of all – wins.
With eight of them already, Anderson and the Sens are half way to achieving a goal many in the hockey world thought impossible just months ago. As they take on the Penguins with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, maybe the Sens will finally get the respect they so rightly deserve.
Advanced stats courtesy of corsica.hockey and hockeystats.ca
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.