If the hockey world remains dubious at the Ottawa Senators’ playoff success thus far, the team’s own fanbase finds its own enthusiasm mixed with a sense of disbelief.
While there are the varying perspectives from within Sens fandom that you’d expect with any franchise – from the true believers to the angry curmudgeons – the broad sense is that few would have made a strong argument for what the Senators have achieved, and many have been left waiting for the inevitable end to the season.
Before last week, it would have been hard to identify a Senators team that had achieved this much, but who were less beloved, even among their own partisans. Listen in over the Senators Twittersphere, and you can still sense that the roster, as constructed, is filled with question marks, also-rans and underachievers.
Few receive more scorn that the second pairing on defence. With veteran Dion Phaneuf skating alongside youngster Cody Ceci for most of the minutes when Erik Karlsson isn’t on the ice, it’s difficult to determine which of the two are more likely to be the target of outsized social media exasperation. Even in an Eastern Conference Final game, fans vent nearly every time the duo step on the ice, and the fact that both played rather well in that game barely slows the antipathy.
And overtime hero Bobby Ryan? He may have begun to win back many of the fans who wondered how the Senators attempted to replace a franchise icon with him by trading their top young player in Jakob Silfverberg, then doubled down by giving him a large piece of their relatively small payroll over a long period of time. Oddly enough, it was only once many had almost completely written him off that he began to receive the sort of love reserved for scrappy third-liners who emerge to have big moments.
Speaking of third-liners, the Senators have more than their share. If the past glories of the team were defined by elite offensive all-stars such as Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza, this team is comprised of an awful lot of interchangeably anonymous forwards who seem as apt to sit in the press box as they are to be contributing with significant time on the ice. That’s not to diminish the contributions of Tom Pyatt, Ryan Dzingel or Zack Smith, but it seems like a lot of the same sort of player with the same marginal skillset spread throughout the lineup.
It’s not unfair to say that some in the fanbase might in fact have a level of concern that given the flaws in how they saw the team constructed, such a surprisingly legitimate Stanley Cup run starts to validate those moves and empower the front office in the coming years. The Senators’ player personnel leadership, essentially unchanged over the past decade and currently led by general manager Pierre Dorion, has had a habit of bewildering fans with their transactions.
An uncharitable assessment of that approach would be that the team holds young players back at the start of their careers before casting them off before they have the opportunity to reach their peak. If fans have had a difficult time embracing Derick Brassard or Alex Burrows, it could be some concern over what those deals will soon mean for a team that is among the oldest in the league.
It’s worth recalling that in the final weeks of the season, the Senators were tooth and nail to make the playoffs. They lost nine of 11 games over one stretch in March, before taking three of their last four games to get into the playoffs, and moreover, enjoy beneficial seeding within the tournament.
It’s also a team that gave up more goals than they scored – the only such team to make the playoffs – so for whatever magic these past three weeks of playoff hockey have offered, it’s still a team that will need to improve before next year.
This isn’t intended to diminish the fun that has overtaken the city, and the sudden belief in this edition of the Senators. It’s likely that Ottawa and the broader hockey world are beginning to appreciate a different side of players like Kyle Turris, or reveling in the growing mythology around Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
But in all honesty, you’d have few apart from the most fanatical partisans who foresaw this playoff run in this team.