Despite (still) being the bottom-feeder of the North Division, the narrative is starting to change -- at least a little -- around the Ottawa Senators.
Maybe they aren't the pushovers they once looked to be, on a pace to be one of the worst outfits in league history, hearkening back to their expansion season. Maybe Matt Murray, who barely survived January with a .845 save percentage, will recover well enough to be closer to his .900 February save percentage the rest of the season.
Maybe they will turn out closer to the team that gave Toronto a heck of a fight in an unexpected 5-3 season-opening win, and less like the one that got outscored 16-3 in a three-game set against Vancouver last month.
Or, maybe, their current 4-2-0 run is a deepfake and they'll revert back to another form.
Whatever we get from the Senators in the next week and a half could greatly impact many aspects of the Calgary Flames. At 9-9-1 and fifth in the North Division -- three points out of a playoff spot -- Calgary will meet the Senators for five of their next six games. Everyone else has already played the Senators more than once, and usually to good results.
Except for their most recent opponent.
At a most crucial time in Calgary's season, here is an overview of how the non-Toronto North Division teams have played the Senators in certain key stretches, and what followed after.
Overall record vs. Senators: 4-1-0
Sitting second in the North Division by points percentage (.639), I don't know if we've gotten a full view of the Jets yet. Patrik Laine played one game before he was injured then traded and the player he was dealt for, Pierre-Luc Dubois, got injured, has played three games and spent the last one on the wing rather than his usual centre.
Some things haven't changed here from last year, though. They still allow a pile of 5-on-5 scoring chances each game, which puts added pressure on Connor Hellebuyck -- it also hasn't changed that Hellebuyck is fully capable of dealing with his workload.
But the Jets chug on and haven't hit the lulls we've seen from some others around them in the standings. They've been steady, not losing back-to-back games in regulation yet, but also haven't strung together a monster winning streak. They've won two in a row on a couple of occasions and their longest streak of the season came when they won three in a row... against Ottawa from Jan. 19-23.
That stretch got Winnipeg off to a 4-1-0 start to the season. The closest of those results was a 4-3 overtime win that came the day after the Jets played Toronto, so Laurent Brossoit was in net. The others were 4-1 and 6-3 wins.
Playing the Sens didn't really change Winnipeg's track at all. After their 6-3 win, they played the very next day against Edmonton and lost 4-3 with Brossoit in net. Two days later they beat Edmonton 6-4 and had a three-day break.
Winnipeg later met Ottawa again on Feb. 11 and 13, winning one 5-1 and losing the other 2-1. In fact, Ottawa's win on Feb. 13 was the beginning of this respectable little stretch they're on right now.
Overall record vs. Senators: 3-0-0
The Canucks were the first panic team to meet Ottawa this year and were, at least briefly, able to get off the mat.
Vancouver started its season 2-5-0 before first meeting Ottawa. The three-game set they played from Jan. 25-28 inspired hope that the Canucks could get back on track towards the exceedingly high expectations surrounding them following Canada's best playoff run last summer.
The Canucks won all three of those games convincingly, with an aggregate 16-3 score in their favour. The Lotto Line, which had been in a rut, woke up a bit. Elias Pettersson scored his second and third goals of the season and added a couple of assists, J.T. Miller scored his first two of the season, and Brock Boeser recorded his third two-goal game of the month.
Vancouver came out of it fourth in the North and believing that perhaps the worst of the season was behind them. Their first game after the Senators series reinforced the belief, a 4-1 win over a Winnipeg Jets team fresh off a three day break.
Those starry-eyed days were short-lived, though. The Canucks followed that Jets game with a horrible trip through Montreal and Toronto, and even though they've measurably been playing better in the last two weeks than at any other point this season, Vancouver is still quickly sliding out of the race.
They are 2-8-2 in their past 12, sixth in the division, and closer to seventh place than fifth in points percentage. And there's no more games against Ottawa to save them in the near future -- they won't face them again until a couple of road games in mid-March.
Overall record vs. Senators: 4-0-0
When the Oilers first played the Senators this season, it was nearly panic time.
A 4-6-0 start had Edmonton fifth in the division by points and sixth by points percentage. They had split a couple home games with Toronto earlier in the week that dialled down the temperature a degree, but a bad series against the last place Sens and who knows how bad things could begin to spiral?
Still finding themselves after a really disheartening playoff elimination to Chicago, Edmonton was facing the same questions about commitment to defence and whether or not their goaltending was good enough to keep them afloat. Mike Smith was still injured when the Oilers first played the Sens, and Mikko Koskinen was beginning to show signs of fatigue.
From Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, the Oilers played five games and four of them were against Ottawa. They won all four by an aggregate 18-10 and, on the morning of Feb. 10, found themselves third in the North and with brand new life.
Since that series of games, the Oilers are 5-1-0 with wins against each of Montreal, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver all in that stretch. There are still questions about defence, but in their past six games Edmonton's opponents have been held to two goals or less four times. Smith is back and, between him and Koskinen, the net split is uneasily settling as expected.
The depth players have made an appearance and been key reasons for a couple of these wins while Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl...well...they keep doing what they've always done.
Edmonton has gone from sheer panic to second in the North and the NHL's hottest team since playing the Senators.
Overall record vs. Senators: 1-1-2
While other teams have been able to spin positives, real or temporary, out of their meetings with Ottawa, the Montreal Canadiens have gone another route.
Oddly enough, the Sens have been a momentum killer for the Habs. Between Feb. 4-6, the teams played two games and the Habs entered with a 7-1-2 record, a North Division juggernaut, and had just scored 11 goals in two games against Vancouver. Montreal's only regulation loss to that point, a 2-0 decision to Calgary, was played well enough to be a win.
But the two-game split Montreal had with Ottawa turned out to be an ominous sign of things to come.
This series is where the percentages suddenly and abruptly started catching up to Montreal. The NHL's most high-event, high-powered offence at the time went ice cold, scoring four goals on 70 shots against Matt Murray -- it was the first time all season Murray had allowed less than three goals in a game and he did it in back-to-back starts against Montreal.
The Habs followed these two games with losses to Toronto and Edmonton before barely scratching out a come-from-behind 2-1 win against Toronto in a rematch on Feb. 13. In those three games, Montreal scored just three times.
Following that win, Montreal went on a six-day break and returned to play Ottawa on Sunday night and again on Tuesday. The Habs were outshot in both games, dropped both in extra time and have now fallen to fourth in the division.
Given where the Canadiens were at the start of this month, just before their first game against Ottawa, it's unfathomable that Claude Julien became the first coaching casualty of the 2021 season.
"It's an NHL team, it's a good young team, they work extremely hard and they have a good young coach," Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said after letting Julien go Wednesday. "They're a good hockey team and they're up and coming."
Overall record vs. Senators: 0-0-0
So what'll it be for the Flames, whose coach has also been a target for criticism amidst their own slide? More than the coach even, Calgary is a team with bigger player personnel questions to ponder if things go sideways this season. And if it really goes wrong soon, maybe Brad Treliving will feel a need to be proactive and make a splash before long.
This is why the next two and a half weeks could be season-defining ones for Calgary. After a three-game winning streak earlier this month, they have won just two of their past six and were humiliated in a 7-1 drubbing to Edmonton on Saturday night. They allow the first goal of the game far too often and slow starts are unfortunately a defining characteristic about this group right now.
At the end of last week their GM went on Calgary radio to say the Flames' effort just wasn't good enough and challenged them to be a harder team. But it never seemed any big change was imminent.
Why? Because this stretch of games coming up is where the Flames should be making up ground. It's maybe not the time to make a move and wait on a replacement through quarantine. Instead, we could learn a lot about Calgary's chances here.
Currently fifth in the division and just three points out of a playoff spot, a strong week could vault them back into the picture and calm calls for change.
But a bad run against the last place team? That could all but end the Flames, and maybe start shifting them into a tier with Vancouver instead of Edmonton or Winnipeg or Montreal.
It's interesting timing for sure. The Flames must have had this stretch marked on their calendar for some time, but just as they get here the Senators aren't playing like a soft touch anymore. They've been mostly hanging around games recently, been tough to compete against, have strung together a respectable record for a week and a half, and were the tip of the spear in this year's first coach firing.
The softest portion of Calgary's first half schedule has suddenly turned into a nail-biter.