The calendar has changed, but the similarities abound between the 2014/15 Ottawa Senators and the 2015/16 vintage.
It was just last year, on Feb. 16, 2015, when the sparks that would ignite the Senators’ historic run to the post-season were lit. Sitting sixth in the Atlantic Division with 54 points (23rd in the league), the Sens faced off against the Carolina Hurricanes needing a win to begin making up the nine points they lacked on the Boston Bruins who owned the second wild card spot.
What happens next is common knowledge at this point, but as a refresher: Clarke MacArthur and Robin Lehner each sustain concussions after a violent collision, forcing Andrew Hammond into the starter’s role where he would gain fame as the Hamburglar; and in MacArthur’s absence, Mark Stone excels as an offensive dynamo en route to a Calder Trophy nomination.
Fast forward to Feb. 16, 2016, and, minus the multitude of injuries, Ottawa finds itself in a nearly identical predicament. The team sits tied for fifth in the Atlantic Division – this time with 58 points (23rd in the league) – putting it six points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins who occupy the second wild card spot with three games in hand on the Sens.
If their position in the standings weren’t enough of a similarity, the Sens are set to take on those very Hurricanes on Feb. 18 looking to use the game as a big push that ultimately lands them in the post-season. But the roster is where the similarities end as the Sens will feature a much different looking lineup when they take on the Hurricanes this time around than they did in 2015.
Of the players who appeared in the starting lineup in last year’s game, only seven forwards and four defencemen remain. Gone are the likes of Milan Michalek, Erik Condra, Jared Cowen and Eric Gryba, among others; replaced instead by such players as Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ryan Dzingel, Dion Phaneuf and Chris Wideman.
The game against the Hurricanes is an especially important one for the Sens because it marks the beginning of a difficult final two-plus months to close out the season. Of Ottawa’s 24 remaining games, 16 come against teams either in a playoff spot or within four points of one (prior to gameplay Feb. 17) and they still have three meetings against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
The latter two opponents may not strike much fear in the hearts of the Sens – have you seen Montreal’s record in its last 30 games? – but they should. Few things provide as much joy to teams as the opportunity to single-handedly crush their rival’s playoffs dreams, much the way the Leafs almost did to the Sens last season.
Beyond the difficulty of the schedule, though, the Sens also have the tough task of refining their game to the level of a playoff-calibre team, particularly on the back end. Despite owning one of the most potent offences in the league, one that has scored the seventh most goals with 160, Ottawa’s defensive struggles have been frequent and well-documented.
Whether they’re shorthanded or at even strength, the Sens’ defence has been atrocious for the better part of 2015/16. The 187 times Ottawa has been down a man ranks 13th in the league, playing a big part in the average 33.1 shots they surrender per game – a fact that has also contributed to the league-high 178 goals the team has surrendered.
In short, there are a number of factors – the standings, league parity, an inability to defend – working against the Sens as they approach the most critical point of the season. But if there’s anything we learned last season, it’s this: with a hot goalie, and a little bit of luck, anything is possible.