Anyone who has followed the Ottawa Senators in recent weeks would tell you how impressed they have been with their play.
Prior to their loss on April 9th to the Calgary Flames, the Sens held the best record in the league over the past 10 games.
Even with that loss, they remain sixth in the league in that span. However, despite this impressive stretch, the Sens will not make the playoffs. That is because it has been a tale of two seasons for the Ottawa Senators, or rather three seasons.
The First 15 Games of the Season
When the season started for the Ottawa Senators there were a lot of question marks around how they would perform. The team would play in a new division where they would exclusively play Canadian teams.
They had several new young players playing with the team full time such as Norris, Batherson, Stützle, Brannstrom, Zub. Veteran players like Dadonov, Watson, Stepan, Gudbranson, Paquette, and Coburn were also brought in to shelter the younger players. On top of that, Matt Murray was set to make his debut as the Sens’ starting goaltender. The team was unrecognizable from what they looked like when we last saw them back in March of 2020.
With all these new players coming together, the Sens struggled to start the season. They put up a disastrous record of 2-12-1 through their first 15 games. Murray looked like the worst goaltender in the NHL, DJ Smith prioritized playing veteran players like Stepan, Gudbranson, and Coburn over young guns like White, Zub, and Brannstrom, and the Sens couldn’t score. The team had a nice opening night victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the next month was some of the worst hockey in Sens’ history.
Things Start to Improve
The worst part of the season ended when the Sens lost 5-1 to the Winnipeg Jets on February 11th. They would have a good bounce-back win against the Jets two nights later. However, it was two nights later on February 15th where the season really started to turn around.
The game started out horribly with the Sens going down 5-1 with a minute remaining in the second period. It looked like the Sens were going to have another blowout loss and continue their terrible season, but that was not the case.
Nick Paul scored shorthanded with 10 seconds left in the period to shrink the lead to three with a period remaining. The Sens would then have an offensive burst in the third period with goals from Zub and C. Brown before a Dadonov goal forced overtime. Dadonov would not just tie up the game, he would end it as well as he scored two minutes into overtime to give the Sens a 6-5 win.
Following that terrible 15 game stretch to start the season, the Sens put up a record of 11-13-3 before the trade deadline. Although that is not spectacular, it was a needed step in the right direction, and the young players were seeing growth.
The Sens traded away Paquette and Galchenyuk for Dzingel, and he provided a much-needed offensive boost. Additionally, although we would never wish harm on anyone, the injury to Stepan 20 games into the season proved to be a blessing for the young Senators team as it meant more ice time went to the young players. Alex Formenton was also called up to the team permanently towards the end of March, and he injected much-needed speed while stabilizing the penalty kill.
An Impressive Run for the Young Ottawa Senators
Following the trade deadline where veteran defencemen Gudbranson, Coburn, and Rielly were shipped out, the Sens played phenomenally. The Sens have put up a record of 9-3-1 since the trade deadline, a record that is among the league’s best in that timeframe.
As a result of the trade deadline moves, Erik Brannstrom was given a permanent spot on the team. Victor Mete was also picked up on waivers, and he has proved to be an excellent player on the Sens’ third pair.
The Sens also brought in college signees Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker around this time. Pinto made his presence felt immediately, proving that he is an NHL-ready player defensively while showing some offensive spark.
Bernard-Docker struggled to make the lineup, but following injuries to Chabot and J. Brown, he has been impressive. He has been hardly noticeable on the blueline, which is an incredible compliment for a 20-year-old defenceman.
Is This Stretch the Real Deal or Fool’s Gold?
The Ottawa Senators are not strangers to finishing the playoffs strong in years where they fail to miss the playoffs. They finished strong in 2016 with a record of 4-2 in their final six games. They finished with a record of 8-2 in 2014. Both of those seasons they missed the playoffs. They also had impressive stretches to end the season in 2013 and 2015.
2013 was the year they became known as the Pesky Sens, scraping into the playoffs despite key injuries to many of their top players in the shortened season. While they made the second round, upsetting Montreal in round one, they missed the season the next year.
2015 was of course the famous Hamburglar year where they went almost unbeaten over the last 25 games of the season to clinch a playoff spot. However, despite that, they lost in the first round and missed the playoffs the next year.
All that is to say that even when the Sens have made the playoffs after impressive closing season stretches in the past decade, they did not lead to long-term success. Is this stretch more fool’s gold, or is it the real deal? It’s impossible to say for sure, and a lot of the team’s success next season will come down to goaltending, but I’m inclined to believe that this success could continue.
The Kids Are Carrying the Team
The players that are driving the play and winning the team games are the kids. Tkachuk, Batherson, Norris, Stützle, Formenton, Pinto, Chabot, Brannstrom, and Mete are all playing big roles in the success of the team. These are all players that are 24 or younger, with many of them being under the age of 22.
While sophomore slumps happen, it is reasonable to expect most of these players to take another step forward next season. If the young players take reasonable steps forward, and they continue to get solid goaltending, the Sens could contend for a playoff spot as early as next season.
The Atlantic is set to be a stacked season, so it will be difficult, but the kids have shown in the last 20 games that they can compete with anyone.