By no means have the Ottawa Senators locked up a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But you’ll excuse Sens fans if they’re looking up in the standings and not behind them right now. Ottawa is just two points behind Boston for the division lead and with the Bruins struggling, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Senators can catch them.
However, if you ask most Senators fans, about where they’d like their team to finish, the answer is simple: Sixth place.
Everyone seems to think that a first-round date with the #3 seed is like a free pass in the Eastern Conference because the Southeast Division is the dysfunctional family in the NHL.
But in my opinion, ending up with the sixth-seed doesn’t mean you get a free pass in the playoffs. Let’s take a look at the challenges of facing each of the potential Southeast Division winners in the first round:
1. Florida Panthers
It seems like everyone’s dream matchup is a first-round date with the Panthers. Nice weather, outlet mall shopping and inconsistent goaltending make them an attractive opponent. But let’s pretend for a moment that the Senators did draw the Panthers in round one with that 3-6 matchup. Who would be the favorite in that series? I’m thinking most Ottawa fans would expect them to beat Florida, so suddenly the expectations would be shifted. Ottawa would go from an underdog to a favorite and that would completely change the perception of a first-round playoff series. This season has been special in Ottawa because there were no expectations on this team; it’s been a fun Cinderella-type ride. A first-round date with the Panthers could change all of that.
2. Washington Capitals
For the past couple of seasons, the Washington Capitals have been weighed down by the pressures of being the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They haven’t been able to advance beyond the second round, losing to inferior clubs such as Montreal and Tampa Bay. But if the Capitals win the Southeast Division this year, nobody will be picking them to win the Eastern Conference. For the first time since 2008, the Caps would enter the playoffs with minimal external expectations. Couple that with the fact that Dale Hunter has his team playing responsible (read: boring) hockey and suddenly Washington could be poised to finally make some noise in the post-season.
3. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets remain the longest shot out of these three teams to win the division. But if Winnipeg should capture the crown it would make for an interesting dynamic. Imagine how difficult it would be to try and win one game at the MTS Centre in a playoff series? They might still be the Atlanta Thrashers on the road, but on home ice, these guys look like the Detroit Red Wings. The Jets have been the best feel-good story in the NHL this season and the emotional tide could be huge for them in the playoffs. There is also the chance the Jets get crushed by the weight of their own expectations — but I don’t know if you’d want to mess with Winnipeg karma this year.