It is no secret that the Ottawa Senators have not had the season they were hoping for. After overcoming multiple injuries and beating the odds, the team made the playoffs last year in the NHL’s lockout shortened-season. The ensuing playoff run was cut short by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Quarterfinals, but it was believed that the run could be used as a building block to help the team become a Cup contender again. Instead, the Ottawa Senators find themselves in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, their slim playoff hopes resting on their ability to win every single game left on their schedule, starting tonight against the New York Islanders.
The Senators’ season of troubles began before the regular season even started. Long-time captain of the team Daniel Alfredsson shocked the organization, its fans and the hockey world by announcing that he would not re-sign with the club, instead favoring a contract from the Detroit Red Wings. Alfredsson made it clear that, while he appreciated everything the Senators organization has done for him, the decision was ultimately “all about trying to get the Stanley Cup.” This, obviously, did not sit well with the fans or many of his former teammates. The hope was that Ottawa could use this slight against their Cup chances as motivation to perform at a high level throughout the long season, but as the regular season draws to a close, Alfredsson appears to have made the correct decision. Ottawa will have to run the table to even have a shot at a playoff spot, while Detroit’s chances of earning a wildcard spot are fairly high.
The decreased level of play of many of the Senators’ star players is another reason why the team finds itself with slim playoff hopes. After getting a career year from goaltender Craig Anderson last season, the veteran goaltender has struggled this year. His goals against average (GAA) is over 3.00 and his save percentage (SV%) of .910 is simply average. He, along with young Robin Lehner, have been minding the nets for the Senators this year, but neither have come close to the goaltending performance Ottawa received last season to help them make the playoffs.
Likewise, young defenseman Erik Karlsson has appeared to take a serious step back in his development. Offensively, he is still the same dangerous point-producing defenseman he has been throughout his career, but his defensive play has been somewhat troubling this year. His reads on developing plays and gap control have not been this bad since his sophomore season in the 2010-2011 season. In the NHL, to have a player play as many minutes as Karlsson does, a higher level of defensive responsibility is a must for any playoff hopeful teams. Karlsson is the team’s Masterton trophy nominee this year, perhaps a subtle hint that the injury he suffered at the hands of Matt Cooke last season is still playing a major part in his defensive deficiencies this year.
Tonight, the Senators take on the New York Islanders, a team they have had little trouble handling in the past. Though the Islanders won the only meeting between the two clubs this season, a 5-4 shootout win back in early November, Ottawa has earned at least one point in the past eight games against New York. While that does bode well for their chances tonight, the Senators must leave the game at the Canadian Tire Centre with two points, not one. This not only applies to tonight’s game, but also a week from now, when the two teams will face off for the final time this season on April 8. The Islanders have given up on any hope of making the playoffs this year, but for the Ottawa Senators, they know their hopes rest in New York, no matter how slim they may be.
This article is one in a daily series providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner