Senators enjoying playing spoiler, but playoffs still a long shot

Ottawa Senators centre Josh Norris (9) celebrates his game winning shoot-out goal against the Montreal Canadiens with teammate Thomas Chabot (72). (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

It was after the 6-1 spanking of the Calgary Flames last Thursday, extending Ottawa’s win streak to three games, that things got out of control.

People were talking -- OK, many were muttering, under their breath so as not to be fully heard -- about the possibility the Senators could take a run at a playoff spot in the North Division.

The local sports radio station even ran a poll on the question: Can the Senators make the playoffs? The poll result leaned toward no, though not overwhelmingly, -- 55 per cent to 45.

Still a pretty startling sense of optimism toward a team that had owned the basement of the North Division standings since their season began on Jan. 15. The optimism was based on two concurrent developments -- Ottawa’s vastly improved play in the month of February combined with the stumbles of the three teams ahead of the Senators in the standings -- Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.

On Friday, those streaking Senators -- winners of five of seven -- awoke to see themselves within seven points of fourth-place Montreal, five back of Calgary and just three back of sixth-place Vancouver.

Even after getting whacked by the Flames Saturday afternoon, 6-3, in a game the Senators were never in, Ottawa was the hottest -- lukewarm-est? -- team among the bottom four of the all-Canadian loop.

As the Senators prepare to meet the Flames again at the Canadian Tire Centre Monday, they are 5-5-0 in their past 10 games, a mark that the Canadiens certainly envy. The Habs are 2-5-3 and fired their head coach, Claude Julien, after dropping two games to Ottawa last week. Calgary is 4-5-1 in its last 10. The struggling Canucks, 2-6-2, still just three points ahead of the Sens.

Sometimes I think the standings should come with a warning: Objects in division may be closer than they appear.

This has always been the difficulty for teams trying to hurdle past multiple teams -- the odds of every one of them staying on a losing skid are very long. Those teams also play each other, head to head, week after week. Someone has to win those games, often three-point games.

The beauty of being in Ottawa’s position? Little was expected of them to start the season, and the bar was lowered on expectations after the Senators went 1-7-1 out of the gate in January.

That the Senators went 6-8 for the month of February represents a vast improvement.

And let’s note some of the personal accomplishments to go with those six wins -- the development of Ottawa’s younger players.

Drake Batherson, who was a dominant scorer at the AHL level last season, but was cool in his first month this year, has been on fire. Batherson has seven goals on the season, but six of them in the past seven games, including a current five-game goal-scoring streak.

“I’ve been getting shots all season, but they seem to be going in now,” says Batherson, so matter-of-factly he clearly would rather not talk about his hot streak, but just continue to live it.

Early in the season, people wondered if Brady Tkachuk was too busy hitting bodies to score goals anymore. That talk disappeared over the past eight games, during which Tkachuk has six goals, including two game-winners, and eight points. Tkachuk leads the Senators in goals (nine), points (16), shots (98) and hits (103). Tkachuk leads the NHL in those last two categories.

Centre Colin White, who seemingly couldn’t be picked out of a police lineup by Ottawa coaching staff at the dawn of the season, sat out four games early on but has three goals and four points in his last three games.

Overall, the young players are progressing. Rookie Tim Stützle continues to dazzle here and there, but gets knocked down enough to remind us all he is going to be a force in another year or two as the 19-year-old naturally builds strength and weight.

Defenceman Artem Zub is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the season, sitting on the sidelines for the month of January before stepping in to be a steadying influence on the back end in the last 14 games. Fans and media had scarcely seen this player, even on video, from his KHL experience.

Erik Brannstrom, 21, has had his ups and downs but saw his ice time diminish over the past three games and on Sunday was put on the taxi squad, to the collective groan of his fans on social media. Taking his place Monday evening will be veteran Braydon Coburn.

Down goes Brown

The most talked about player who has not played a single minute for the Senators is big Logan Brown, who again became a centre of attention when centre Derek Stepan suffered a shoulder injury that could keep him out for the rest of the season.

While veteran Artem Anisimov stepped in immediately to replace Stepan against Calgary this past week, Brown did practice with the team on the weekend. In fact, he led the Senators onto the ice for Sunday’s skate.

Any thoughts that Brown might be activated versus the Flames on Monday were dashed when he was assigned to the Belleville Senators roster on Monday, along with goaltender Filip Gustavson.

Head coach D.J. Smith wants Brown to get in a few games with Belleville while the NHL Senators are on the road. Brown has played just two AHL games this season and none in the NHL.

“At some point, if everything goes as planned, we’ll get him back here and get him an opportunity,” Smith said. “Unfortunately for him, he played two (B-Sens) games and got hurt, and not only couldn’t play but couldn’t practice for a stretch of time. It hasn’t gone great here, timing wise, but if he can get some games in, we’ll put him in a situation for him to succeed.”

Smith also said he thinks Brannstrom will benefit from sitting and watching for a game or two.

“Sometimes when you watch the game, you realize you have a little more time than you think, and you reset,” Smith said. “We’ll get him in as soon as possible... both times when he’s come back (after being out) have been his best games.”

Christian Wolanin is another young defenceman sitting and watching. He hasn’t played since Feb. 18, a 7-3 loss to Toronto.

After Monday’s home date with Calgary, the Senators have a difficult schedule ahead -- a Tuesday game in Montreal followed by two in Calgary and three in Edmonton. Ottawa then returns home for a six-game homestand -- first, three games in four nights, with a break, and then three in four again. Two of the six are against front-running Toronto.

There won’t be any pressure on the Senators to climb into the top four of the North. Continuing to play a spoiler against the teams north of them and taking a shot at surpassing Vancouver in the sixth slot would be achievement enough.

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