As the Atlantic Division fully morphs into the Titanic Division, it’s worth noting that the one consistent team amongst the rabble this season has been the Ottawa Senators. Heck, with Montreal’s free-fall and the Sens having five games in hand, they could actually win the division.
But how is Ottawa doing it?
In terms of possession hockey, the Sens are bottom-10 in the NHL. Their power play is no good, though the penalty-kill is pretty decent. They don’t have a dominant No. 1 center, though they do have a dominant No. 1 defenseman. And Mike Condon has started most of the games in net.
In search of answers, I called up someone who should have a pretty good perspective on things: Ottawa associate coach Marc Crawford, who came to the squad in the summer alongside new coach Guy Boucher.
“What we’ve accomplished so far is that we’ve improved our compete level at quality times,” Crawford said. “Our starts are better and we’re playing a more reputable game. There has been buy-in to Guy’s system.”
Indeed, year over year, the Sens are much better in the first period than they were last season, where they were one of the worst in the NHL. Now they’re top-10, with 46 goals versus 40 against.
A big part of that involves the neutral zone. The Senators like to make that a difficult place to get through and with timely scoring, the ice tilts just enough in their favor. Elsewhere, a commitment to the system means the forwards must be part of the defense.
“You have to check as a unit now,” Crawford said. “There’s a lot of low coverage that involves three or four people. It has to be cohesive, if not perfect.”
As for the defense itself, the unit is naturally led by captain Erik Karlsson, whose nearly 27 minutes of action per game leads the Senators and ranks amongst the tops in the league. Karlsson leads Ottawa in scoring and is the undisputed No. 1, but sorting out the rest of the order has also helped this season. Cody Ceci has earned more ice time than he did last season and that has put him and partner Dion Phaneuf on even footing as the Nos. 2 and 3 D-men (put them in whichever order you may; it’s not really of any consequence). That allows Marc Methot to slide down into the more appropriate No. 4 slot, in terms of ice time, where he also functions as Karlsson’s stay-at-home buddy.
Up front, the Senators are scoring by committee. New recruit Derick Brassard has settled in since his summer trade from the Rangers and now has the best possession numbers of anyone on the Senators. Crawford cites Ryan Dzingel as a pleasant surprise and in general, getting a little bit of offense from everybody means the team doesn’t suffer if one star runs cold. Ottawa has been shut out just three times so far.
Perhaps the best news as the trade deadline approaches is that netminder Craig Anderson has returned. His absence due to his wife’s cancer diagnosis was well understood and Condon was a satisfying replacement in the interim, but it’s Anderson who can truly take this team to another level when he’s locked in.
Now, the challenge for Ottawa will be to maintain its success as the games get tighter.
“You’re going to play teams who are desperate or trying to surpass you,” Crawford said.
Along with that, there is still work to be done and along with the Sens’ work on the man advantage, overall play is a target for Crawford.
“We definitely can get better at the growth in our game,” he said. “Good teams bring it every night. You have to consistently get to the net and get rebounds, along with having a strong power play. That’s crucial at this time of the season.”
Look atop the Atlantic standings and you’ll find uncertainty – but you’ll also find the Senators with the best points percentage of anyone right now. Are they up to the challenge of beating back the desperate and the potential usurpers? They’ve come this far, and it will be a very intriguing stretch run for the squad.