analysis

Long playoff run for the Senators is more likely than you think

MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail

Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot, left, collides with Montreal counterpart Raphael Diaz this week. The Senators won the playoff series 4-1. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

The book makers will doubtless take a dim view of the Ottawa Senators’ chances in the second round of the NHL playoffs, particularly if they end up meeting, as seems likely, the conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

They may regret it.

For there is plenty to fear from a Sens team that just steamrolled an undermanned Montreal Canadiens squad in five games; if anything, they look a lot like the scrappy 2009-10 Habs team that shocked the top-seeded Washington Capitals and defending champion Pens in back-to-back playoff rounds.

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Goalie Craig Anderson’s performance ensured that even when it was outplayed by the Habs – and it was, a lot – Ottawa was able to keep hanging around until the bounces went its way.

A .950 save percentage provides a lot of leeway; you might say the Habs were (Jaroslav) Halak-ed by Anderson, who allowed only six even-strength goals in the series.

And this team has an asset the Habs of three years ago didn’t: a big, mean defence corps that is arguably the class of the East, where shutdown stalwarts Jared Cowen and Marc Methot complement puck-movers Sergei Gonchar and Erik Karlsson.

Even in the cases where Anderson offers up rebounds, opposing forwards face a tough slog in getting to them – veteran Chris Phillips and emerging masher Eric Gryba are also around to see to that.

The only blueline regular shorter than 6 foot 2 and lighter than 205 pounds is Karlsson, the 2012 James Norris Memorial Trophy winner. And while the 22-year-old Swede looked like a mere mortal by the end of the Montreal series – five games in eight nights when you’re coming off Achilles surgery will do that – there is every expectation rest between rounds will allow him to return to his imperious best.

The Sens are also well-stocked in battering-ram forwards of the kind that can fore-check a team into the ground – the turning point of the Montreal series may well have been the first game, in which Anderson held the fort while facing 50 shots and the Sens’ physical onslaught left three of Montreal’s top nine forwards with significant injuries.

Dishing out the hurt was clearly a feature of the Ottawa game plan against Montreal, it was credited with 107 hits in the first three games.

The approach would likely continue against the Penguins, the Capitals or even the Boston Bruins (each is a theoretical possibility for the next round, although Pittsburgh is by far the most likely opponent).

Ottawa is a team, after all, that has made a conscious effort to add bulk and brawn.

“We had identified [size and physicality], scouted that, and found players who are like that in the playoffs … in the playoffs, physicality is a big part of having success, and I think the physicality we were able to play with was a big factor in us winning this series,” Sens head coach Paul MacLean said after last Thursday’s series-clinching game.

The Senators have multiple flaws – the power play, they can be vulnerable to speed, and are alarmingly reliant on callow rookies Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad and Cory Conacher for offence.

But the most glaring weakness – Kyle Turris is no one’s idea of a No. 1 centre, and will find it hard to cope with a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin – may soon be resolved.

Injured pivot Jason Spezza is stepping up his rehab from back surgery, and GM Bryan Murray suggests it’s possible the rangy 29-year-old will be fit enough to rejoin the club in the second round.

“I’d like to see Jason on the ice for sure. He’s a good player, he’s an important player for us … I hope to see him at some point in round two, but whether or not that happens, I couldn’t answer,” Murray told the team website Friday.

While it’s true Ottawa doesn’t have the experienced bodies down the middle to rival the Pens – who does? – it is an outfit that feels good about itself.

With good reason: Having made the playoffs while surviving bad injuries to Karlsson, Anderson, Spezza, Cowen, and scoring Milan Michalek, the Sens are playing with house money.

The fact they’ve now won their first playoff series under MacLean has, in the coach’s considered opinion, bridged any gap between the holdovers from the 2007 Stanley Cup final run and the youngsters who won an AHL championship two years ago.

“Now, they’re actually one group,” he said.

The other X-factor as the playoff road unfolds? MacLean.

The wily Nova Scotian is a fine tactician, but his forte is communicating with his players and a flair for playing hunches; down 2-1 in the final minute of game four against Montreal, he decided to tap Conacher’s shoulder.

The diminutive forward had played only two shifts in the third period after a bad giveaway led to Montreal’s second goal. Conacher redeemed himself spectacularly, scoring with 28 seconds to play, Ottawa would win in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead.

“Our team finds a way,” is how MacLean summed it up this week.

Yes, it certainly does.

Beware the resourceful team that has nothing to lose.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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