The Ottawa Senators are now one game past the 41-game mark, a benchmark used to evaluate an organization’s progress. With 40 games remaining in the NHL regular season, and the Senators sitting in 6th place in the Eastern Conference, the biggest question facing the projected biggest loser of the East isn’t “can we make the playoffs” but rather, “will we?”
With disastrous losses and funks featuring a 1-6 opening to the season (not to mention two games allowing 7 goals in that span) to rip-roaring winning streaks and inspiring come-from-behind victories in the final minutes (and seconds) of play, the team’s nickname “The Cardiac Kids” is certainly fitting. There is no indication that the bottom half of the conference’s top 8 is even close to being resolved. The Senators know that there is no margin for error with games played by divisional rivals potentially becoming three-point games in the standings.
However, the kind of determined play that causes upsets in the playoffs and serves as the backdrop for Cinderella runs has been present in almost every single one of their games this year. The only thing that matters is that no matter how many goals a team may cede, they must score just one more to win. With that in mind (and contrary to what TSN fantasy guru Scott Cullen told me last year), the Ottawa Senators will probably make the playoffs. Here’s why:
Defensemen and Goaltending
Blue-chip prospects Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen have been a force on defense, with Karlsson poised to surpass 70 points this season while also garnering the most votes in the 2012 All-Star game to be hosted in Ottawa and Cowen pushing himself into Calder Trophy discussions. Early season question marks Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar have used horrible 2010-2011 campaigns as fuel for much better performances; Kuba has a plus-9 rating, up from a minus-26 the year before, while Gonchar has almost matched his entire offensive output from last season in almost half the number of games. Throw in the fact that goaltender Craig Anderson has the skill level to steal important games, you’re looking at a defensive corps that may be saving its full potential for when it matters the most: the postseason.
On offense, the team has followed the play of their leaders, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. At 39 years old, “Alfie” has matched his points total from last year’s injury-plagued 54-game performance (he currently has 31 points in just 36 games) and has already taken more shots. Spezza has been the team’s most consistent player, taking command of games in both ends of the rink and showing glimpses of the type of play that made him nearly unstoppable when he had sniper Dany Heatley in the 2000s. Speedy Milan Michalek is also the first Ottawa player to crack the 20 goal plateau this season.
Ottawa has been cursed with poor secondary scoring since its last Cup run in 2007. This may be the year that the team’s secondary scorers end up making the difference between a long holiday and the playoffs. The acquisition of Kyle Turris from the Phoenix Coyotes has paid big dividends. In 9 games, Turris has 6 points and has a plus-6 rating. While Zack Smith, Colin Greening, Nick Foligno, and Erik Condra are not household names, their “compete level” has been on strong display all season long. The most compelling stat of the lot? Condra has a plus-11 rating on a line that faces some of the oppositions’ toughest lines while also playing for a team that has allowed the second-most goals in the entire league.