It’s not an elimination game, but it may as well be.
When the Ottawa Senators take on the Calgary Flames Saturday night they’ll have to win to preserve what distant hope they have of being in contention for one of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots. The weight of the game was already going to be immense, but their soul-crushing loss to the Vancouver Canucks days earlier only adds more pressure.
Following that loss to Vancouver the Sens fell to 12th out of 16 teams in the east, needing to leapfrog three opponents in the standings just to catch the Pittsburgh Penguins, owners of the second wild card spot with three games in hand on Ottawa. To say their loss to the Canucks – a game in which Ottawa twice held the lead – was devastating would be a massive understatement.
Nevertheless, the focus for Ottawa must quickly turn to the Flames, themselves enduring a disappointing year. Coming off a season in which they were the darlings of the NHL – qualifying for the playoffs despite mountains of evidence suggesting they shouldn’t even finish outside the league’s basement – the Flames have regressed substantially in 2015/16.
Not only have they fallen completely out of the post-season discussion, but they are now firmly ensconced in the race for Auston Matthews. That they are so often among the NHL’s bottom three – and, consequently, silently hoping for more losses than wins in their remaining 22 games – bodes well for the Sens who simply can’t afford to lose another of these winnable games.
But, as mentioned, the path to the post-season won’t be an easy one for Ottawa – each of the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers is chasing a wild card spot and has better position in the standings than does Ottawa. Even worse for the Sens is the fact the Flyers, like their Pennsylvania counterparts, have multiple games in hand.
But perhaps most concerning for the Sens is their schedule: Not only do they have multiple games against some of the league’s best, such as the Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars, but they have only three remaining so-called “four-point games” – those matchups between teams competing for the same playoff spot – meaning it will be that much tougher to make up ground.
Hence why the Sens can ill afford to leave points on the table, especially against teams that, on paper, they should beat (i.e. the Flames). The timing of the game is especially intriguing, making its importance twofold: On the one hand, if the Sens win they could justify being buyers at the upcoming trade deadline; but if they lose, they can just as easily go into sell mode.
Regardless of which side of the line the Sens fall on, Patrick Wiercioch’s is a name likely to attract significant attention as the deadline creeps closer. With Ottawa’s top six on the back end seemingly in order, that leaves Wiercioch as the odd man out, which is welcome news for teams such as the Penguins and Colorado Avalanche who are prime candidates for a depth defenceman.
If they end up in the role of seller, Bryan Murray could dangle Mike Hoffman in front of teams in need of scoring to gauge the potential return. On pace for career bests in both goals and points, and as the heartbeat of Ottawa’s forward group, Hoffman is likely to command a significant raise from his current $2 million salary – a big problem for the notoriously cash-strapped Sens.
It’s a sobering thought that the fate of the Sens’ leading goal scorer could rest on the outcome of a single game. But with its season on the line, anything is possible for the team.