As the Ottawa Senators come out of a CBA-mandated five-day break, the team has something to prove. The club has lost three straight games and its hold on second place in the Atlantic has deteriorated, with four division rivals having climbed to within two points of the Sens.
There is a bigger problem, though. The things Ottawa did to climb to its now precarious perch in the East are going to be difficult to sustain in the New Year. Meanwhile, the club’s substantial problems are likely to stick around.
Looking at the weaknesses, it’s almost hard to believe the Senators are three games over .500.
Take even-strength play. Ottawa takes 48 per cent of shot attempts in its games and scores 48 per cent of the goals. This compares to an average of 50 per cent of the shots and 50 per cent of the goals the team recorded in three seasons leading up to 2016-17. The much-vaunted improvements in defensive play appear to have come at a cost at the offensive end of the rink, and on balance the Sens are a below average club at evens.
The same holds true for special teams. The Senators rank 21st in the NHL when it comes to generating shots on the power play and are just the tiniest bit better (19th) when it comes to scoring goals. The 5.7 goals per hour they’ve scored this year at 5-on-4 is indistinguishable from the 5.8 goals per hour they averaged between 2013 and 2016.
The penalty kill has been an area of relative strength early, where they allow goals slightly less often than the average NHL team, but there’s a red flag there, too: Ottawa is a bottom-third team when it comes to allowing opposition shot attempts. They’ve done strong work blocking shots, but allowing the opponent to take the offensive zone and blast away is a dangerous strategy.
Even assuming the penalty killing approach doesn’t backfire, the Senators have scored fewer goals in combined special teams situations (power play/penalty kill) than they have allowed.
Given that all of the above is true, there is an obvious question: How do the Sens have such an impressive record when they aren’t particularly strong in any situation?
Essentially it comes down to two statistics:
• Ottawa is 14-5-3 in games decided by a single goal (excluding empty-netters)
• Ottawa is 0-7-0 in games decided by more than two goals (again, excluding empty-netters)
Imagine a five-game series between Team A and Team B in which both score 12 goals. That sounds even, but if Team A gets shutout 4-0 by Team B in the first game and then wins the next four contests by 3-2 scores the results won’t match the goal differential.
This is what Ottawa has done so far. The team’s goals for tend to be concentrated in close games, giving them just enough edge to collect the win. Its goals against tend to be concentrated in blowouts, where an extra goal has no actual impact. That’s how a team that gets outscored overall wins more than it loses.
The next question in this sequence is whether this is the result of dumb luck or deliberate strategy. In other words, is winning the close ones and losing the blowouts a legitimate approach that could result in a successful team?
Although it may sound superficially plausible, the evidence offers a clear and resounding answer: “No.”
To answer the question, we went back and looked at every NHL team since 2005-06 to post a similar win percentage in three-goal games as the Senators. We used NHL.com’s numbers for this, which include empty-net goals and thus give Ottawa a more respectable 3-8-0 record (27.3 win percentage), but the point shines through clearly enough anyway.
Forty-five teams had similar records to the Sens in those blowout games:
There are a lot of awful teams there. More than half (27 of 45) finished the year in a bottom-five position in the NHL standings. There were, however, three clubs that succeeded in making the playoffs:
• The 2009-10 Nashville Predators
• The 2009-10 Ottawa Senators
• The 2015-16 Detroit Red Wings
Sens fans will remember that 2009-10 team, coached by Cory Clouston. It exited the playoffs in Round 1. The next season, those Sens continued to lose the blowouts, but in addition also started losing the close games. Clouston was dismissed after the club tumbled 20 points in the standings.
Nashville followed a different path. In 2008-09, it lost the close games and the blowouts. In 2009-10, it lost just the blowouts, made the playoffs and lost in the first round. In 2010-11, it stopped losing close games or blowouts and advanced to Round 2 of the playoffs.
The most recent team on the list is last year’s Red Wings. The weakest team in the post-season won only a single playoff game last year. Currently the Wings are on a streak that has seen them post just four regulation wins in their past 32 games.
There isn’t a single team in the post-lockout era that has had anything remotely like real success while getting blown out the way Ottawa has. On the other hand, there have been a whole bunch of teams that were in contention for a first overall draft pick.
The obvious conclusion is that the Senators are riding a hot streak and getting away with poor play by squeaking out nail-biters. The other obvious conclusion is that at some point it’s going to stop, and when it does the club is going to tumble down the NHL standings.