Well, a funny thing happened on the way to stinking out the joint.
In the season’s early going the Ottawa Senators have conjured up the elusive quality that separates great teams from the average, and the middling from the truly awful: they’ve learned how to play for each other. In the words of former Glasgow Rangers manager Jock Wallace, they’ve got the battle fever on.
Picked by most to finish near or at the very bottom of the East, the Sens have won six of seven and may be playing themselves out of contention in the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes.
Rookie head coach Paul MacLean has been a tonic for centre Jason Spezza, who is among the league’s scoring leaders, and linemate Milan Michalek (eight goals in his first 13 games). Under MacLean the Sens are also the league’s never-say-die poster children with three wins in the final seconds, boasting the top power-play, and are top five in goals-per-game. On the cause-to-worry front, captain Daniel Alfredsson is out (concussion), they’re brutal five-on-five, and are 3-0 in shootouts – good teams don’t rely on crapshoots.
The Sens have two men among the top-10 scoring defencemen. Erik Karlsson was tied for the league lead going into Friday, Sergei Gonchar sat 9th with 9 points in 12 games. But they are minus-2 and minus-3 respectively. Ottawa is also dead last in the NHL in goals-against per game, and are 2-5 when out-shot. Rookies Jared Cowen and David Rundblad are bright spots, but have only played 25 NHL games between them.
Craig Anderson has six wins, but hasn’t exactly been the reincarnation of Jacques Plante – he’s given up three or more goals in four of his Ws, owns a 3.80 goals-against and .880 save percentage. Un-awesome. And the less said about backup Alex Auld, the better. Injuries haven’t helped, but Auld has yielded nearly five goals a game and is dead last among NHL goalies with an .830 save percentage.
CAN IT LAST?
Probably not. Ottawa doesn’t have the depth up front or heft on the back end to make the playoffs, but they should be closer to mediocre than diabolically bad.