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Could the Senators make an improbable playoff push?

February 25, 2024, 7:09 PM ET [6 Comments]
Sens Writer
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By Ken Hawkins (a.k.a. khawk)

The Ottawa Senators have definitely turned the page on their poor showing in the first part of the season, and improved to 10-3-3 in their last 16 games after a 4-3 (OT) win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday. In many ways, this game served as evidence of how far the team has come under interim head coach Jacques Martin. Not because it was a perfect game, but rather because it definitely wasn’t. Despite giving up goals early in the 1st and 2nd periods, being down 2-0 nearly halfway through the game, and giving up a game-tying goal with less that 80 seconds remaining, they came back to eventually win the game in a shootout. They showed the kind of patience, resilience, and tenacity that just a few weeks ago was virtually absent in their game. It was also noteworthy to hear comments from captain Brady Tkachuk about the team wanting to continue their improved play in order to prove a lot of people wrong. Does that mean they see themselves as a playoff team? It’s maybe not quite as crazy as it sounds.

The Playoff Line

Many of the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference are quite secure, most notably for teams like BOS, FLA, TOR, NYR, and CAR. Beyond that, there are 3 teams currently within just 1 point of each other that include both Wild Card teams and make up what might be considered the playoff line. DET, PHI, and TBL are all in the 67-68 point range, of which TBL has the fewest points and the most games played with 59GP. Their projected finish of 93 points (i.e. current winning% x 82GP) is therefore the basis of what will be considered here as the playoff line in the East.

What does this mean for the Ottawa Senators? The odds are not great, but their current run of improved results has dealt them back into the playoff race, at least in principle. They currently sit with 53 points in 55GP, which means they would need to get 40 points in their final 27GP to finish with 93 points. What does that look like in terms of wins/losses? It’s just slightly better than the 10-3-3 winning pace they’ve had over the past 16GP. How slightly better? If they’d managed an OTL vs. CHI instead of a regulation loss (i.e. been 10-2-4 instead of 10-3-3), that would have been the pace required to make up the ground in the playoff race. Basically, something along the lines of 18-5-4 would be required to get it done.

So what lies ahead in the next 27GP? The answer there is kind of interesting. Their next 10 games are actually quite favourable in that they only play 2 teams currently in a playoff position (PHI/LAK). They also play a full third of those 27GP against teams they will need to leapfrog in the standings, which if nothing else provides the opportunity to do so. Then you have their final 8 games where they play 5 games vs. FLA (x2), BOS, NYR, and TBL, however that late in the season teams with locked-in playoff positions may not be playing with desperation, and the game vs. TBL could actually prove to be a critical 4-point game to help decide the final playoff spot.

“So you’re saying there’s a chance”

Despite their relatively low odds, there are some interesting x-factors that could play to the Senators’ advantage down the stretch. If you look at the teams they’re chasing like NJD, PIT, WSH, NYI, and even include PHI/TBL as lower-end playoff teams, not one of them has a record better than 5-4-1 in their past 10 games (vs. 7-2-1 for OTT). What that means is none of these other teams are really gaining any major ground, and for some they have significantly older rosters which could make them sellers at the trade deadline. This could also happen to OTT of course, but it remains unclear as to whether Staios might decide to further invest in this group vs. trying to enhance their ROI on expiring contracts.

Another interesting plus in the Senators’ favour is their offensive production, which is currently ranked 8th in the NHL with a 3.35 GF/GP. Of the top-14 teams in the NHL in this metric, only OTT and NJD are non-playoff teams, and NJD are currently 9th in the Eastern Conference and favoured by many to replace PHI as the 3rd playoff seed in the Metropolitan Division. Basically every other NHL team with this level of offensive support is a playoff team, with virtually no exception. Furthering this point is that over the past 20GP the Senators have actually been scoring at a rate of 3.50 GF/GP, which is close to the pace of teams like COL/EDM/TOR. This recent increase is due to the return of Chabot/Pinto to the lineup, as well as far better recent performances from players like Stutzle/Norris. If this production is sustained, so too might be their success.

Lastly, the Senators have a significantly better goal differential (-7) than their record would suggest. Why is this important? Goal differential is a major predictor of regular season success, and as of right now 15 of the top-17 NHL teams in terms of goal differential hold playoff spots. Now the Senators’ goal differential isn’t yet at that level, but it is currently as good or better than 4 of the 6 teams they need to catch down the stretch. And if you create a ratio between goal differential and win/loss success based on current league standings, it suggests that OTT should actually have at least 3 or 4 more points in the standings than they do. It also suggests that four of the teams OTT is chasing down the stretch have significantly out-performed their goal differential, which are both trends that could regress back towards the mean in the Senators’ favour.

The Verdict

Despite the majority of the previous discussion, the Senators will likely fall short of a playoff appearance once again this year. However, their recent play suggests they may come quite a bit closer than many thought would be possible back when they fired DJ Smith. If nothing else, their recent improvement could affect how GM Steve Staios approaches the trade deadline. This may include no longer signalling a need to make changes to the young core, not seeking a trade for a UFA like Vladimir Tarasenko, and maybe even enticing him to go after a much-needed RHD to help bolster the team’s defence. Either way, tremendous credit is due to Jacques Martin and Daniel Alfredsson for changing the tone of this season so effectively in such a relatively short period of time.

What do you think about the Senators chances of making an improbable playoff run? Leave your comments below, and as always thanks for reading!
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