Just two points back of the Montreal Canadiens for top spot in the Atlantic Division — and with two games in hand heading into Tuesday night — the Ottawa Senators are in a position few expected.
After missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and being without their No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson for an extended period after he stepped away to be with his wife Nicholle as she battled cancer, the Senators were mostly a playoff afterthought. In a division that includes Montreal, Tampa Bay, Florida, Boston and a young and unpredictable Toronto team, few predicted the Senators to make the post-season, let alone win the division.
Senators GM Pierre Dorion credits a couple factors for the Senators’ turnaround and playoff push, not the least of which is his two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson.
“The buy-in from Erik Karlsson,” Dorion said on PrimeTime Sports Tuesday evening. “Erik is a dynamic player. I’m fortunate to see Erik probably 75 times a year. I’d challenge anyone in this league to say that there was a more spectacular player or even defenceman.”
As was explored on Hockey Night in Canada this past weekend, Karlsson has taken his game to a whole new level in a two-way sense. He still leads the league in blocked shots, which analyst Kelly Hrudey pointed out Karlsson does differently than, say, Kris Russell.
Karlsson gets more out of it to help at the other end of the ice.
“He does it a little bit differently if you ask me,” Hrudey said. “He’s really good because of his skating ability to get right out to the guy who’s shooting the puck and it’s maybe a little bit different than some of the other guys and it also leads to great offence.
“Maybe a Kris Russell might come back to the net a little bit more. He’s figured out how to generate some scoring from it.”
Even with this increased focus on defence, Karlsson is still second among all blueliners in scoring with 62 points in 67 games.
Scoring has mostly been an issue for the Senators this season, although through their current six-game winning streak heading into Tuesday’s game against Tampa Bay they’ve managed to score 21 times.
That brings us to the other major factor who Dorion credits for the Senators being in the position they find themselves. New coach Guy Boucher, who was last seen in the NHL in 2012-13 with Tampa Bay, returned from Switzerland with his defence-focused style. It was that kind of detail and Boucher’s strong communication skills that first led Dorion to bring him in.
“I think from Day 1 it probably wasn’t the most popular thing to play a system that we played and we sacrificed personal gain for team gain, but I think overall those are the two biggest factors,” Dorion said.
“He (Boucher) didn’t want to quit, he didn’t want to leave the room. The first interview was four and half hours and the second interview was almost eight hours and every tough question I gave him he was ready for. For our team we needed someone who could talk and communicate and someone who had great knowledge of the game. Not just — people have always talked about his power play and his power play maybe isn’t the greatest this year, I think we’re 22nd in the league — but in as far as getting our defensive structure that we needed to have for us to have success.”
After winning just 12 of 25 games in December and January, the Senators are surging at the right time and look as though they may not just win the Atlantic, but poised to go on a playoff run.
But does that top seed in the division mean anything to the GM?
“Not really,” Dorion said. “Once we’ve clinched the playoffs maybe if we do the interview at that point in time I might change my mind.”