Eastern Conference Playoff Preview: Ottawa Senators
In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Ottawa Senators, who currently hold the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Senators, who limped to a 36-35-11record in 2008-2009, have dramatically improved this season. The team, who sits at 41-30-5, have used young talent and rode goalie Brian Elliot to the fifth seed.
After trading Dany Heatley and fifth round draft pick to San Jose, it looked as if the Senators would remain in rebuilding mode. The team received Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, and Cheechoo couldn’t even stick with the team. But the forwards have played well this season, putting away the doubts of many analysts. The team has four 20 goal scorers, with Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza leading the way. Michalek, who rounds out the first line with Alfredsson and Spezza, also has 20 goals. That’s a lot of firepower on the first line for the team. But behind the firepower, the forwards don’t do well defensively. They only have four forwards with a positive plus/minus number. That usually shows the forwards aren’t responsible defensively. Come playoff time, that can hurt the Senators. Two-way hockey grows in importance, because one defensive miscue can cost a team a game and potentially a series. While the forwards can score goals, they also don’t give much help defensively.
The Senators boast a deep and talented blue line. Chris Phillips leads all N.H.L. defenseman with eight goals, and Filip Kuba leads in all points with 28 points. But their offensive talent overshadows the weakness on the blue line. The Senators currently rank 18th in goals against average, and when you factor just 5-on-5 play, that number falls to 28th. That’s a big, ugly number for a playoff team. When facing high-powered offensive teams, that can be a deciding factor. Couple that with the lack of defensive help from the forwards, and the Ottawa defense has more cracks than it shows on the surface. They do own the seventh best penalty kill, which can cover some of those cracks. But the weak play during 5-on-5 will hamper them in any playoff series.
The Senators came into the season riding Pascal Leclaire, an average goalie at best. But since an injury sidelined Leclaire, Brian Elliot has emerged as the team’s number one goalie. He’s been a pleasant surprise for the Senators. The young goalie has a 27-17-3 record with five shutouts. He also has a 2.50 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. Those numbers may not knock you over, but he’s brought a stabilizing force in net. The disadvantage, however, is that Elliot is young and inexperienced. That could be a major factor come playoff time. But he’s stabilized a position that has been volatile for the past few seasons, and he’s one of the reasons the Senators sit in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Overall, the Ottawa Senators look to be a good, but not great, playoff team. They do have some scoring depth, including some serious offensive ability on the blue line. But they also have some glaring holes. The offense doesn’t seem to backcheck well or play solid defense, and their blueliners rank middle to bottom of the league in goals against. While the penalty kill is solid, these stats can not be ignored. While Elliot has been solid, he’s relatively unproven in the playoffs. We’ve seen several of these goalies succeed (Semyon Varlamov, for example), but it still needs to be a concern for the Senators. Ottawa is good, but not great.