It’s not hard to remember a time when the Ottawa Senators seemed hopelessly outside the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. In fact, if we jump back just a single month, we find the Senators 14 points back of the final wild card spot in the East, with an ugly 20-22-9 record and with the necessity of leapfrogging six teams to make the postseason.
Fast-forward to the present, and most of the work has been done.
The Sens have gone a remarkable 10-1-2 over their last 13 games, passing Toronto, Columbus, New Jersey and Philadelphia in the process. The Panthers are nominally still in front of Ottawa, but the Senators are just one point back and have two games in hand; if we adjust for games played Florida too falls in the rearview mirror. With five teams down, only the Boston Bruins now stand between Ottawa and a playoff spot.
So how did a team that looked dead a month ago claw itself back into the race?
Before we look at what the players are doing, we should take a broad look at what has happened at the team level over the last 13 games. The special teams have been a little above average, with the Senators scoring eight goals and allowing six between the power play and penalty kill, but that modest plus-two goal differential is not driving a 10-1-2 record.
Instead, Ottawa’s been a much better even-strength team than the opposition over this stretch, scoring 33 goals and allowing just 21 for a plus-12 goal differential. Only two teams in the league have been better in that category over this stretch, and as one might expect both have been similarly successful; the Rangers and Wild took off at the same time Ottawa did and have a combined 20-4-3 record over this same one-month span.
Ottawa’s been very good at both scoring goals for and preventing goals against. In five-on-five play, the Senators rank fourth in the league over the last month in terms of goals for and seventh in terms of goals against; that’s a winning combination. How are they doing it?
The best part of this story is on the defensive side, so we might as well start there.
Ottawa has been willing to play pond hockey with its opposition pretty much all year, which means a lot of shots for but also a lot of shots against. That hasn’t changed just because the Senators are winning games; they’re still one of the worst teams in the NHL in terms of allowing shots. Instead, the primary credit belongs to a 27-year-old minor-league journeyman, an undrafted AHLer who was only pressed into service thanks to an injury suffered by Sens starter Craig Anderson.
Andrew Hammond is a pretty shocking man-of-the-hour. It’s not just that he’s 27 years old, and it’s not just that he’s mostly been an AHL goalie; it’s also that this season he hasn’t been a particularly good AHL goalie. Hammond has a 7-13-2 record and 0.898 save percentage over 25 games this season for Ottawa’s affiliate in Binghamton; he’s been dramatically out-performed by ECHL call-up Scott Greenham (12-7-2, 0.923 save percentage).
And yet, Hammond has been exceptional.
Over nine games for the Senators he has posted a sparkling 0.958 save percentage at even-strength; that’s the best goaltending the team has had all year. It’s not like the defence has been boxing guys to the outside, either; a look at where the shots have come from shows that Hammond has earned his save percentage by shutting down opponents at point-blank range.
On the list of reasons that Ottawa is back in the playoff picture, the Hamburglar ranks No. 1, as head coach Dave Cameron acknowledged in an interview with NHL.com.
“He isn't beating bad teams,” Cameron said. “Let's give him credit. Let's not call him a flash in the pan. He's the real deal to me. He's the real deal to our hockey club right now. We wouldn't be where we are, closing in on the gap, if it wasn't for him."
Hammond, who has shutout L.A. and Anaheim and whose only loss over this stretch came in the shootout at the hands of the red-hot Wild, deserves much of the credit and has been getting it, but this isn’t a one-man story. Ottawa has also had some crazy-good offensive performances from key players.
The team’s top line of Kyle Turris, Milan Michalek and Mark Stone has been the hottest trio in the NHL over this incredible 13-game run.
At even-strength alone, the three have combined for a whopping 30 points over the last month; individually all are in the top-10 in five-on-five scoring over that span. The second line of Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad and Bobby Ryan has been excellent too, combining for 27 points at five-on-five over the same time period. Team captain Erik Karlsson has been lights-out on both the power play and at evens; with 15 points over the last 13 games the only players in the entire league to have scored more are John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Sedin.
That has to be the biggest reason for optimism in Ottawa. While this run for the postseason is incredibly exciting, it’s the play of some key young players that will matter the most in the long-term. Four of the team’s top-six forwards over this run are 25 years of age or younger, as is Karlsson.
Hammond is a great story and so is this desperate drive for the playoffs, but the young skaters powering this run are more than that. They’re likely to be the core of a competitive Sens team for most of the next decade.