It’s been a remarkable resurgence in Ottawa this season under rookie head coach Paul MacLean. The Senators, who finished 13th in the East and two points out of the conference cellar just a season ago, has rebounded in 2011-12 to have a quality season in qualifying for the playoffs.
But can this team, led by veterans Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson and defensive dynamo Erik Karlsson, actually make some noise in the postseason this year?
The Sens are among the biggest surprises in the NHL this year, along with the Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues. Pretty much every expert prior to the season picked them to finish out of the playoffs, yet with two games to go, they’ve clinched a spot and all but secured seventh in the East.
It appears Ottawa will face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in the first round, about as tough as it can get for an opening playoff matchup. The Sens have only beaten Boston once in five tries in the regular season (1-4-0, with one game remaining Thursday night) and haven’t won a playoff series since going to the Cup final themselves in 2007.
But don’t necessarily count the Sens out.
MacLean, a leading candidate for the Jack Adams trophy, has been a steadying force behind the bench all season in Ottawa and he clearly has his team believing in his system. The main benefactors have been Spezza, who’s leading the Sens in scoring (33g-50a), and the rejuvenated 39-year-old Alfredsson, who’s in contention for comeback player of the year (27g-32a). Both have both seen their careers rebound this season under MacLean, and their subsequent leadership on and off the ice has paved the way to team success.
The Sens are also blessed with the best offensive defenseman in the league in Karlsson. It’s been a breakout year for the 21-year-old Swede, who has amassed 77 points thus far in only his third season in the league, a full 25 points clear of the next closest competitors -- Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Florida’s Brian Campbell. He’s basically a shoo-in to capture the Norris, and if the Sens are going to go deep into the postseason, he’ll likely be the biggest reason why.
And Milan Michalek, who leads the team with 35 goals, has finally made everyone in Ottawa forget about Dany Heatley, the man he was traded for three years ago. The 31-year-old Heatley has managed a mere 23 goals in Minnesota this season, compared to the career-high goal total posted by Michalek playing alongside Spezza.
The Senators also possess a number of secondary scorers who have stepped up their game this season. Kyle Turris, who the Sens acquired from Phoenix back in late November, is getting hot at the right time, recording eight points in his last five games. Nick Foligno has also been a pleasant surprise with his scoring and toughness on the wing, recording 46 points and 122 PIMs through 80 games.
Perhaps most importantly has been the steadying play of starting goaltender Craig Anderson. The Sens dodged a major bullet after Anderson was able to return after after slicing his hand open in a freak kitchen accident. Despite missing a month, Anderson has won 3 of his last 4 starts and appears back to where he was before the injury. And that’s good news for Ottawa fans, as Anderson’s play will ultimately be the deciding factor in how far the Sens can go this April and May.
The Senators might even have a little history playing on their side, should they face the Bruins in the first round. Five of the past nine defending Cup champions have failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs the year after winning the Cup, including Chicago last season. While that’s hardly a guarantee for the Sens to have success, it does speak to how much things can change from year-to-year and that any lower-ranked playoff team has a legitimate shot to surprise or upset a favorite in a short series.
You can call it the “Canadian Curse of the Bambino”, but it’s been 85 years since the Ottawa Senators last won the Stanley Cup in 1927. Now, in the 20th anniversary season of the new franchise, you can bet there’s nothing they’d like more than to celebrate by hoisting the Cup.
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