The Ottawa Senators shocked the hockey world last year by making the playoffs seemingly out of nowhere. Goalie Andrew Hammond became one of the NHL’s darlings, going 20-1-2 and leading the team to an unlikely wild card spot. Ottawa finished 2014-15 with a 24-4-4 record, hamburgers were flying during home games and fans got to see the true power of momentum in sport.
That run was special because streaks like that are incredibly rare. Teams don’t typically cruise to a playoff spot by snagging points in 28 of their final 32 games. Fans don’t typically have an excuse — let alone permission — to chuck hamburgers at players, and Curtis Lazar doesn’t usually have a reason to eat one.
There was something magical about what the Senators managed to do last season. And now just a year later, they are trying to do the same thing again. Say what you want about the team trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice, but things are starting to get interesting in Ottawa.
On February 9, the Senators acquired Dion Phaneuf from the Toronto Maple Leafs. The trade was considered a home run for the Maple Leafs, who were able to get out from under Phaneuf’s massive $49 million contract. Ottawa was almost universally mocked, mostly because of the veteran defenseman’s age (30), the amount of time left on his deal (five more years) and his cap hit ($7 million).
The early returns have been stellar for the Senators, however. Maybe the trade looks worse in 2019-20, but the arrival of Phaneuf has seemingly galvanized the entire organization. Ottawa dropped its first three games following the trade, but has since won four consecutive times. This has lead some pundits and fans to wonder whether or not the Senators can make back-to-back miracle runs to the postseason.
There are a few obstacles standing in their way. First we have to consider the quality of the teams that the Senators have knocked off lately. Of the four squads that they’ve beaten on this streak, only the Detroit Red Wings are currently in a playoff spot. The Carolina Hurricanes are knocking at the door, but then there are the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres–two of the lowest hanging fruits in the entire NHL.
All four games were winnable, and the Senators did themselves a favor by securing eight points across those four contests. They are still four points back of the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference though, and have to jump three teams to get there. That includes the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are currently sitting in the last Wild Card slot.
Ottawa would also need to outplay the surprising New Jersey Devils and the underrated Hurricanes while fighting off the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens. That’s a tall order, and it’s reflected in the Senators’ raw odds of making the playoffs. That number stands at 7.4 percent heading into games on February 24.
As Marc Spector pointed out in his post for Sportsnet.ca, there is value in having been somewhere before. Lazar also spoke about how valuable last year’s experience was:
“It’s that mental side of the game. We know what it takes. It was kind of a miracle run last year, and a streak like that is never going to be done again. We know that. But the fact of the matter is, we are out of this [playoff] picture, and we have to win games to try and claw our way back. Hopefully we get some help from other teams, and let’s see what happens.”
Just how much help would the Senators need? For starters, they’d need the Penguins to trail off in a big way. They’ve been skating without Evgeni Malkin since February 2, but have gone 5-2-1 in that span. It’s believed that Malkin will be able to play for the Penguins on Saturday, giving Pittsburgh another weapon for the playoff push. Phil Kessel has to get going eventually (right?) and Sidney Crosby has been sensational since going cold in October.
The Devils and Hurricanes have been almost as good as the Senators over their last 10 as well, making it even tougher for Ottawa to gain ground. We’ve been waiting for New Jersey to fall off all season long, but they’ve continued to put up wins.
Carolina has started to see positive results after putting up strong possession numbers last year. However, they could look to sell off some assets at the upcoming trade deadline, which would work in Ottawa’s favor.
Then there is the Flyers to worry about, who will eventually get Claude Giroux back and healthy. Philadelphia also has a few games in hand over the Senators, meaning they will have more opportunities to secure points in the standings. Lazar was putting it lightly when he said that his team would need help from other squads around the league.
There’s no Hammond-like run coming this time around. Instead, the Senators are going to have to try to break into the playoffs the old fashioned way: by winning more than they should and hoping that the teams around them hit a wall.
The odds are incredibly long, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Senators will be “Canada’s team” during the 2016 postseason.