Currently out of the playoff picture, the Ottawa Senators are ironically in a better position right now than they were last year as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
Granted, a lot of that has to do with the relative health of the team this year compared to last, when they sustained 219 man games lost the entire lockout-shortened season. That was the fourth-most amount in the league. This season, they’re dead last with just 26. The 29th-place team, the Los Angeles Kings, have sustained more than 50 more, with 78.
While that turnaround is amazing in its own right, it’s a larger wonder the Senators are only now finding their legs after finding so much success last year, much of it without the services of players like Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson and Milan Michalek.
Currently at 21-18-8, the Senators are one point out of the last wild-card spot and seven back of the Montreal Canadiens for the third Atlantic Division berth. However, arguably more significantly, the Sens are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, meaning as recently as just before Christmas, Ottawa was 14-17-6 and a different team for all intents and purposes.
It can be argued that they are actually a playoff team currently, meaning them making the playoffs is a simple matter of them continuing to do just what they’ve been doing, i.e., winning. It’s of course not necessarily that simple. Thankfully, though, it’s also not as simple as head coach Paul MacLean letting a pit bull loose in the locker room and then dressing whomever makes it out unscathed…you know, however logical that would be in theory.
In 2011-12, the last full NHL season, the Senators coincidentally finished the year as the eighth seed in the East with 92 points. Assuming that is the minimum amount of points needed to make it this season—the Montreal Canadiens made it in 2009-10 with just 88—the Senators need 42 points in there final 35 games, eight sets of which are back-to-back.
While on the surface that may seem to be a tall order, it becomes even taller. They’ve got just 16 home games left, compared to 19 on the road. It gets worse.
Starting with Thursday night’s game against the Habs, the Senators will play four straight against playoff teams, putting their current streak in serious jeopardy. Additionally, of their 35 total games left, 20 are against teams above them in the standings.
That’s not even counting the February 27 game against the always tough Detroit Red Wings, who as of Wednesday night are no longer one of the East’s top eight teams and have the same 50 points as the Sens.
Back in October, Sens fans would probably have gladly “taken” being tied with the Wings past the midway point of the season. However, that would have likely only been because the implication was the perennial-contender Wings had only gotten better with the acquisition of Daniel Alfredsson in the offseason.
Considering the Sens’ success last season with essentially a skeleton staff, matching the Wings blow for blow would have been realistic too. As it happens, both teams have just plain blown, each in real danger of missing the postseason.
The two teams are going in different directions, though, with the Sens suddenly surging and the injury plagued Wings floundering. Competing with the Wings atop the conference might have been the ideal scenario—Alfredsson having jumped ship in favor of a supposedly better, final shot at a championship. However, perhaps beating him out for the final playoff spot will end up being even sweeter.
The Sens do have one ace up their sleeve in that regard despite the tough road ahead, in addition to them currently firing on all cylinders that is. Twenty-five of their remaining games are against Eastern opponents. As a result, despite not currently being in the playoffs, their fate is very much in their hands. In other words, as alluded to earlier, just win—as they’ve been doing without fail recently—and you’re in.
As evidenced by their unlikely, yet dominant five-game first-round victory over the Habs last spring, anything can happen at that point. If the Sens everyone’s been seeing recently are truly for real, though, it doesn’t need too.