The last week of the regular season brings clarity to the often murky race to the post-season. But, with only a few games left per team, the Eastern Conference only has 2 teams with a guaranteed appearance in the Spring Fling. Pittsburgh and the Candiens are the only teams in the Eastern Conference that are sleeping soundly as of March 31st.
So where does that leave the Ottawa Senators? The team that challenged the Anaheim Ducks less than one year ago in the Big Dance for the Stanley Cup? As of the writing of this article, they are sitting in 6th place in the East with 92 points, only 1 point ahead of the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, two teams tied for the 7th and 8th place in the Conference. They are 4 points ahead of the Washington Capitals (88 points), but the Capitals have a chance of bumping the Carolina Hurricanes (90 points) out of the 3rd divisional seed.
Not only does Ottawa have to battle other teams itching for a chance to prove themselves, but they also have to battle through a few key injuries. Center Chris Kelly, a Penalty Killing specialist, is sidelined for a minimum of three weeks with a hairline fracture in his leg. His speed and defensive responsability will be missed on the Senators Penalty kill. Cory Stillman is also day-to-day with a lower body injury, although he is not expected to miss much time, his power play know how could help the Senators clinch a chance to prove themselves in the playoffs.
Alot of fans are still torn on the Senators goalie situation, saying that Gerber can't handle the pressure of being a #1 goalie in a hockey crazy city like Ottawa, and that the coaching staff should hand the reins to Ray Emery who has proven himself in the playoffs. It is my humble opinion that Gerber is the Senators' best chance of going deep in the playoffs in regards to the goalie position. He is technically sound and with a good defensive corps in front of him, he can concentrate on stopping pucks and doing well.
I truly believe this team is capable of challenging for the Stanley Cup. The 15-2 start to the season wasn't just a fluke, and even anti-Ottawa hockey fans know that there is too much talent on this team to flounder in the first round, or miss the playoffs entirely. Something from the beginning of the season is missing and if the Senators can find it before they're in a hole, they'll make all the teams in the East sweat bullets.
Hypothetically, if the Senators are the team that comes out of the East, who would they be facing? In my mind, its a three way tie. Anaheim is the same team that they were last year... Only better, with the addition of Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider. San Jose has truly benefitted from the trade deadline acquisition of Brian 'Soup' Campbell, and Patrick Marleau is starting to produce offensively on the ice. And of course, there is the Detroit Redwings, who are almost guaranteed to win the President's Trophy as the team with the best overall record at the end of the regular season.
Don't be surprised, though, if Colorado knocks off one or two of the three aformentioned teams. If Peter 'Foppa' Forsberg can stay healthy along with Ryan Smyth, Joe Sakic, and Paul Stastny, they have great offense and Jose Theodore is looking in "Conn Smythe" form.
No matter what happens, hockey fans the world over are gearing up for one of the greatest times of the year: where there's a hockey game being televised nearly every night, and the quality of hockey is maximized. Merry Playoffs!