With 13 wins in their last 14 contests, the Ottawa Senators have rapidly developed into an elite team who others will want to avoid at playoff time.
A month ago the Senators looked to be one of about eight teams fighting for one of the final two playoff spots. Now the Senators are the NHL’s hottest team and sit atop the Northeast Division.
Those 13 wins have not been the result of a weak schedule; 11 of Ottawa’s last 14 games have come against teams that currently sit in playoff positions. Included in that span are Ottawa victories over Chicago, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Vancouver, and now Washington.
The Senators have proven that they can win regardless of their opponent’s style of play. The latest proof of that was Thursday’s freewheeling 6-5 victory over the high-flying Capitals. Ottawa proved that throughout their lineup they have players who can skate and can score.
Since coming back from injury, center Jason Spezza has been scoring at a goal-a-game clip. Enigmatic Alexei Kovalev has seemingly found a passion for the game again, demonstrating a will to win at both ends of the rink. Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher have excelled throughout the season, providing leadership, grit, and a scoring touch.
If teams want to play a slower, puck-control game, the Senators have had the answer to that as well. Witness their Jan. 26 3-0 shutout victory over the New Jersey Devils.
A key to this winning streak has been the stellar play of netminder Brian Elliott. Taking advantage of an opportunity afforded him by Pascal Leclaire's inconsistent play and consistent injuries, Elliott has been rock-solid throughout the past winning streak.
Defensively, Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov have been one of the better shutdown duos in the NHL this season. Young Erik Karlsson’s skating and puck-moving abilities have never been in doubt, but he has proven capable of dealing with the physical element of the NHL game. Karlsson’s play has elevated to an ever higher level this past month.
Another player who has exceeded expectations is defenseman Matt Carkner. Originally thought by many to be merely a fighter with limited skills, Carkner has evolved this season from a career minor leaguer into a legitimate, quality defenseman.
Coach Cory Clouston must now cringe watching Carkner drop his gloves to fight a one-dimensional goon such as Toronto’s Colton Orr, knowing that one of his better defensemen will spend substantial minutes in the penalty box.
There is still one-quarter of the season left to be played. Many of those games will be compressed over the short period remaining following the Olympic break. It remains to be seen where Ottawa will finish in the standings—the bulk of their post-Olympic schedule consists of road games.
Still, the Senators’ hot streak is now at four weeks and counting. They clearly must have confidence in themselves, their goaltending, and in the system implemented by young Coach Clouston.
If the Senators continue to play among the leaders of the NHL’s Eastern Conference, Clouston will surely garner serious consideration for Coach of the Year. He has his eye on a much bigger prize however. That involves a serious run through the playoffs and a second chance for the Ottawa franchise to play in a Stanley Cup Final.