With under a month left of the 2014-15 NHL season, time is of the essence for both the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators. With only a single point separating them in the standings, the Cats and Sens find themselves in varying situations. But as they chase the Boston Bruins for the Eastern Conference’s last Wild Card spot, the clock is becoming a factor.
On February 20, the Florida Panthers sat one point out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff seeding. Gerard Gallant’s team had just collected their fifth point in their last three games, while Boston was in the midst of a four-game west coast losing streak.
All was going according to plan. Florida GM Dale Tallon added veteran forward Jaromir Jagr, who’s notched five points in seven games for his new team, while goalie Roberto Luongo was on course to challenge the 30-win threshold.
That’s the closest they’d come – to date, anyway.
The Bruins would go onto win eight of their next 10 games, collecting points in 11 of them. The Panthers, on the other hand, would experience a four-game losing streak before wrapping up the month of February with a pedestrian 6-6-2 record.
After downing the Tampa Bay Lightning to start the month of March, Florida’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. In a March 3 matchup against the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs, the Panthers not only dropped a crucial gimme of a game, but lost both of their goalies to injury in the process.
Plot twist: Both Panthers goalies are hurt, they drop a bit in the standings, win the lottery, draft McDavid, and start a dynasty.
— Steve Dangle Glynn (@Steve_Dangle) March 4, 2015
“Never happened [to me],” said Jagr via Harvey Fialkov of The Sun Sentinal. “Tough luck. Such and important game, too. We got to battle through it. Bad timing.”
The injuries to Luongo, and backup Al Montoya, really couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the trade deadline in the rear view mirror, Tallon was unable to dial up another GM to cook up a trade. His best option was to call up Dan Ellis, who went 0-5-0 in six appearances with the Panthers last season, from AHL San Antonio.
With their playoffs hopes in a 34-year-old journeyman netminder, the Cats were able to bounce back, collecting points in Ellis’ first four games. But despite Ellis’ pleasant start in net, the Bruins opened the gap. With points in their first six games of the month, including a five-game win streak, Beantown’s team was looking to jump up a spot in the playoff seeding.
The Panthers still face a very, very long shot to get into the postseason, especially as Tuukka Rask really builds back into “totally worth $7 million” form. — James O’Brien, Pro Hockey Talk
Still, it hasn’t been a horrendous month for the team from Sunrise. After Sunday’s loss to the Rangers, the Panthers are 5-2-1 in their last eight games. But with their rock steady goaltending on the shelf, Florida’s low scoring style has gone from an advantage to a disadvantage.
It's not like the Panthers aren't getting good scoring chances. Just need to capitalize and soon.
— Jake Winderman (@jakewinderman) March 15, 2015
The Cats’ 2.36 goals per game is 25th in the league, while their 15.8 percent power play percentage is worse – 27th to be exact. To give an even better perspective, the Panthers’ minus-22 goal differential is worse than that of the New Jersey Devils, and only a swing of four goals better than the Carolina Hurricanes.
New Jersey sits 13 points out of a playoff spot, while Carolina isn’t even on the same continent with post-season talk, looking from a distance of 22 points.
The talent is certainly in place for the Panthers to put up more goals but the team will need to deliver, which is always easier said than done. — David Dwork, CBS Miami
With Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim no longer in Sunrise, Gallant has relied on his younger talent of late, even with Jagr in the lineup.
Brandon Pirri‘s goal in Sunday’s loss to New York was his sixth tally in his last eight games, as well as his second in as many games. Nick Bjugstad, 22, has balanced a trio of goals and assists in his last eight games as well, while leading the team in scoring with 42 points.
While Bjugstad and Pirri have supplied the recent offense, a good portion of the lineup remain barren in scoring.
- Jimmy Hayes hasn’t lit the lamp since his game-winning mark on Feb. 17 in Toronto.
- Despite being second in team scoring, Aleksander Barkov has produced six points in his last 15 games.
- After a 12-game scoreless drought, Scottie Upshall has only two points in his last 12 games.
Those numbers aren’t encouraging. But with 13 games left to play, the Panthers are technically still in the mix. And despite the season’s closing window, they still have two more dates against the playoff positioned Bruins – a team they dropped their only previous meeting to this season.
The odds are not in the Panthers’ favor, however, since they’re now chasing the Ottawa Senators as well. But that doesn’t give the surging Sens an automatic berth either, which makes Florida’s mountain all the more higher.
A ‘Sen-derella’ Story
The Ottawa Senators have now become the typical dark horse story. The Sens have gone from firing their head coach, Paul MacLeon, to sitting five points back of the eighth-seeded Bruins.
How can this be?
The Sens are green. They’re inexperienced. They boast 13 players who are 25-years-old or younger, yet here they are.
Yeah, it’s hard to figure. Here’s a team—a team that already carries the lowest payroll in the NHL—actively looking to sell off some aging but important veterans (Chris Phillips, Chris Neil) at the deadline. A team that has the 25th-ranked power play in the league. A team that allows 32.4 shots per game, more than all but four other clubs. — Allan Muir, Sports Illustrated
Since dropping their third straight game on Feb. 7 to Columbus, Ottawa has gone 13-2-2, leaping both Philadelphia, and Florida, in the standings.
Injuries to Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson have allowed rookie Andrew Hammond to step in, going 10-0-1 in his first 11 NHL appearances of the season. The 27-year-old netminder has yet to allow more than two goals in a game, while turning away viable foes like the Habs, Islanders, and Kings.
The Andrew Hammond story defies explanation. Zero evidence suggesting this could happen. That's what's great about sports!
— Travis Yost (@travisyost) March 16, 2015
With Clarke MacArthur, along with Phillips and Neil, on the IR, the Sens have jumped on Hammond’s back, making a playoff berth not so farfetched.
“Surreal is a good word,” Sens forward Bobby Ryan said of his goalie teammate to the Ottawa Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan. “You’re at a loss for words to describe what he’s doing.”
The key to Ottawa’s success hasn’t been held exclusively by their goalie nicknamed “Hamburglar.”
Ottawa’s been very good at both scoring goals for and preventing goals against. In five-on-five play, the Senators rank fourth in the league over the last month in terms of goals for and seventh in terms of goals against; that’s a winning combination. — Jonathan Willis, Sportsnet
While Hammond’s ride has been a feel good story, the Sens are still in the hole they dug themselves in when the word “rebuilding” was more identifiable than “playoffs.”
Needless to say, the Senators are in need of some help. Despite owning a game in hand on Boston (two on Washington), Ottawa will not only have to maintain the pace they’ve now set, but need the Bruins (or Caps) to lose. They’ll also need these teams to lose in regulation.
With the trend of three point games rising near the end of the season, the Sens’ five point deficit should be treated as if it were more. The players know it too, as they’ve admitted to keeping their eye on what’s going on with Boston.
The Boston Bruins have nailed the "Let's do the opposite of what the Sens need" thing.
— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) March 16, 2015
“You’re going to log onto NHL.com first thing in the morning and check (the standings), that’s what I usually do,” Sens defenceman Mark Borowiecki told Chris Hofley of the Ottawa Sun.
With Ottawa’s win over Philadelphia, and Boston and Washington tied heading into their Sunday night showdown, Ottawa was guaranteed to gain ground on the loser – Boston, as it turned out. And of their 14 remaining games, eight of them will be played in the friendly confines of Canadian Tire Centre.
“You never know, right?” Sens forward Kyle Turris told Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen. “We’re just trying to keep moving in the right direction.”
The Senators attitude is pretty simple: They may not get there but they want to give themselves a chance. This is a lot better than the alternative of playing totally meaningless games at this point. The odds are still against them making the post-season but who knows what will happen around them. — Bruce Garrioch, Ottawa Sun
The Sens will have to maintain their loose-knit approach with the test they’ll face down the homestretch. Their remaining schedule features seven games against playoff teams, including a pair of dates with the NHL-leading New York Rangers.
Everyone loves an underdog. And at this point of the season, that’s exactly what the Panthers and Senators are. While it’s unlikely either of these longshots sneak in, it’s always a possibility. That is, after all, why we watch to begin with.