“What’s that? Ah — Playoffs? Don’t talk about — playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game! Another game.”
I found myself quoting Jim Mora a lot at the end of last season, when my beloved Ottawa Senators missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. Were it not for a miracle run of 23-4-4 in the last 31 games of the 2014-15 regular season, it would have been three consecutive seasons out of the post-season. Fortunately, since last April, the fortunes and outlook of my favorite hockey team have improved quite considerably. Let’s take a look ahead at their first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins.
2016-17 Regular Season Record: 44-28-10, 98 points (2nd in Atlantic Division)
Goals For: 206 (22nd)
Goals Against: 210 (10th)
For the first time since 2007, Ottawa clinched home-ice advantage in a playoff series, and hopefully it will be of major help to them. One of the running jokes about the Sens from the rest of the league is that apparently they can’t even fill their own building come playoff time, but this is patently false – despite the occasional somewhat sleepy regular-season crowd at the Canadian Tire Centre, the place is a madhouse come April. Regardless of whether that crowd energy is a quantifiable boost or not, hopefully they can find a way to feed off it.
Last year was a disappointing year for the Senators; they finished just 38-35-9 for a total of 85 points. When the season wrapped up, they finally had some long-overdue house cleaning, not only firing head coach Dave Cameron (their fifth head coach firing in ten years), but also finally saw longtime GM Bryan Murray step down from the role and pass the reins off to his former assistant, Pierre Dorion. In the summertime, with the hiring of new head coach Guy Boucher, along with associate head coach Marc Crawford, who won a Stanley Cup with the ’95-’96 Avalanche, things started to turn around. With a few other key moves made in the offseason, including sending centre Mika Zibanejad to the New York Rangers in exchange for fellow centre, and local boy, Derick Brassard, the core of the roster began to take shape.
Problems would soon follow, though. In training camp, veteran winger Clarke MacArthur suffered his fourth concussion in two years when he was hit from behind by AHL scrub Patrick Sieloff in an intrasquad scrimmage. The loss of MacArthur, who hadn’t played since October 2015, was a blow to the team. Later, starting goaltender Craig Anderson left the team for two months to be with his wife, Nicholle, as she underwent treatment for a rare variety of throat cancer. With backup Andrew Hammond struggling and later injured, Dorion pulled the trigger on sending a fifth-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins, acquiring goalie Mike Condon to fill in during Anderson’s absence. Not to overdramatize here, but Condon absolutely saved the Sens’ season this year, at one point starting in 27 consecutive games from December through early February. Even with his numbers starting to dip near the end of that run, his play was enough to keep the team afloat during what was a tough stretch of the season.
With the team playing well, Dorion got the okay from notoriously tightfisted owner Eugene Melnyk to add salary just before the trade deadline, acquiring veteran winger and notorious pest Alex Burrows from the Vancouver Canucks (who signed a two-year contract extension with the team) and speedy checker Viktor Stalberg from the Carolina Hurricanes, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago back in 2013. Coupled with the extremely unexpected return of Clarke MacArthur at the end of March (he had previously been declared shut down for the year back in December after working to try and clear his concussion baseline tests for months and months) and the return of Craig Anderson to the starting job in goal, things are looking probably more optimistic for the Sens this playoffs than they have in a long time.
However, there’s a lot of work left to be done. The Sens have had a hell of a lot of difficulty scoring goals recently, averaging just 2.5 for the season – 23rd of 30 teams in the league. While the team has done a much better job of limiting goals against this season from last, allowing just 2.6 goals a game, 10th overall in the NHL, they’re still allowing 30.1 shots a game, at 13th of 30 teams. A better metric, however, is the team’s puck possession percentage, called Corsi; last season, the Senators ended the season 25th out of 30 teams, with a CorsiFor percentage of just 47.45% – meaning of all the shot attempts – on net, wide, and blocked shots – in a game, the Sens gave up more than they took. Ottawa hasn’t done much better on this front this season, finishing 22nd, with a CF% of 48.55… they’re still giving up more chances than they create. This is the second-lowest of all 16 playoff teams, with only the Rangers lower. Their penalty killing and powerplay have also been ineffective later in the season, ending the year ranked 22nd and 24th overall, respectively. Add in the fact that the Sens are the only playoff with a negative goal differential (at -4), and it’s easy to see why they might be viewed as a paper tiger in these playoffs.
Still, Ottawa has an ace up their sleeve that no other team in the league has. That’s their captain, Erik Karlsson.
Karlsson got robbed of a Norris Trophy last year as the league’s best defenseman, a season where he amassed 82 points in 82 games and led all players in minutes played; he lost to Drew Doughty, who… made the playoffs, I guess? This year, despite his point totals being down, it’s arguable that he’s been even better than last. In 77 games in 2016-17, Karlsson scored 17 goals and 54 assists for 71 points, finishing second in scoring among defensemen behind Brent Burns of San Jose, who had 76. In addition, he also finished second in blocked shots, with 201, behind only Edmonton’s Kris Russell. With increased time on the penalty kill this season, he also helped take a unit that finished 29th last year into 15th for most of the season, until a late-season injury saw those numbers fall again. He’s led his team in scoring four consecutive seasons, won two Norrises, and does everything for this team.
Besides just what the numbers indicate, Karlsson is breathtaking to watch as well. Whether it’s smoothly skating the puck out of his own zone, making a crisp pass to a wheeling forward in the zone, how he walks the blueline looking for open space in the offensive zone, or how he hits a second gear skating back to prevent an odd-man rush or jump up in a play, Karlsson is a human highlight reel. He’s the reason Ottawa is where they are in the standings. With Karlsson, the Sens have the potential to actually make a surprising impact on these playoffs; without him, they are completely and utterly fucked, even worse off than the Colorado Avalanche or Vancouver Canucks. I watched a few games near the end of the season where Karlsson wasn’t playing, and it was painful to watch just how badly the team played in their own zone. It’s hard to believe that I’m saying this, but even in a league with Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Carey Price, there still may be no player more essential to his team’s success than Karlsson is to the Ottawa Senators. Not only should he win the Norris this year, in my humble opinion, but he should absolutely be considered in the conversation for the Hart Trophy as well.
There are a few other bright spots for the Sens, though. Forwards Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Kyle Turris all had excellent seasons, points-wise, and Craig Anderson has been stellar since his return from his two-month absence to be with his ailing wife. With the return of MacArthur, as well as the trades for Burrows, Stalberg, and former San Jose utility man Tommy Wingels, the Sens have their deepest forward lineup in years, with the ability to roll four lines that can all make an impact. This is going to be interesting to see who sits for Game 1 of the series; right now, all indications are that 36-year-old center Chris Kelly, who played all 82 games this season, will be scratched – he’s lost a step on the play, especially notable near the end of the season. Also likely, though more unfortunate, are the fact that 25-year-old sophomore speedster Ryan Dzingel will also likely sit, despite amassing 32 points this year – he’s had tons of great chances but has had some terrible puck luck this year, preventing him from adding to those numbers. New rookie signee Colin White, who just finished his NCAA season at Boston College, and veteran enforcer Chris Neil will also sit as well. In a series against a team with a skilled lineup, it’s good to see that Boucher is, for the most part, trying to match that with speed and skill of his own, instead of taking the Randy Carlyle face-punching approach.
Fortunately for the Sens as well, this is about as favorable a playoff matchup as they could have hoped for; for the first time in their 25-year history as a modern NHL franchise, they swept their season series with the Bruins. In the past three seasons, Ottawa has gone 10-3 against Boston, outscoring them 41-31 in that time. For whatever reason, their defensive system seems to have given the Bruins fits; even for a team with Patrice Bergeron, playoff mega-performer, and Brad Marchand, mega-shit-disturber with silky mitts, they just haven’t looked like themselves against Ottawa. Add in the fact that Boston is missing stud defender Torey Krug from their blueline, and the health of center David Krejci is also questionable, makes things more difficult for Boston all the same. Still, this series is going to be a close, tight-checking, defensive battle – don’t expect much in the way of offense from either team.
In the end, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict this series as Sens in six. Bring it the hell on, playoffs.