Time running out on Senators' sensational playoff push: 'There’s still some magic left'

Time running out on Senators' sensational playoff push: 'There’s still some magic left'

The worst place in the NHL to scoreboard watch might be Joe Louis Arena, the old barn by the Detroit River. The out-of-town scoreboards have been broken for years and covered with banners advertising a tire store. Sometimes out-of-town scores flash on pixelated message boards, but only sometimes. This is a rink where the video screens are small and in standard definition, not HD, a decade out of date.

“You can barely see the main scoreboard,” said Ottawa Senators winger Clarke MacArthur.

So as the Senators faced the Red Wings on Tuesday night, they couldn’t find updates on the Boston Bruins’ game against the Florida Panthers. They just kept playing, kept grinding, kept believing until MacArthur broke through with a goal late in the third period and they ended up winning in a shootout, 2-1. They entered the dressing room and finally got the news: the Bruins had won, too.

Andrew Hammond has stepped into the breach and been a revelation for the Senators. (AP)
Andrew Hammond has stepped into the breach and been a revelation for the Senators. (AP)

“It doesn’t deflate you, because you want to roll with the momentum,” said Senators winger Bobby Ryan. “But at the same time, you see the numbers dwindling.”

The Senators have been one of the great stories of the second half. Under coach Dave Cameron, who took over for the fired Paul MacLean in December, behind goaltender Andrew Hammond, who essentially had never played in the NHL before, they went on a 15-1-1 run from Feb. 18 to March 23. They went from 10 points out of a playoff spot to overtaking the Bruins for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference.

They looked like they ran out of gas after that. Hammond gave up five goals against the New York Rangers and suffered his first regulation loss. He sat out two games with a sore back – from carrying the team, as the jokes went – and the Sens lost in overtime to the Toronto Maple Leafs and in regulation to the Panthers. Captain Erik Karlsson called out their effort.

Now after a dominant performance in Detroit – despite the tight result, the Senators outshot the Wings 34-17 – here is the situation: The Sens are three points behind the Bruins. They have a game in hand, but the Bruins have the tiebreaker with more wins in regulation and overtime.

Ottawa’s schedule down the stretch: Tampa Bay, Washington, at Toronto, Pittsburgh, at New York Rangers, at Philadelphia.

Boston’s schedule down the stretch: at Detroit, Toronto, at Washington, at Florida, at Tampa Bay.

“I think we can do it,” MacArthur said. “I have a good feeling about our team. We’re going to lay it on the line and see what happens. We made a great push. We shouldn’t even be in this position, and the guys stepped up. Obviously Hammy’s a big part of that.”

Obviously he is. Hammond, a.k.a. ‘The Hamburglar,’ has fans throwing McDonald’s onto the ice because he has come out of nowhere to go 15-1-1 with a 1.85 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and two shutouts. Two seasons ago, he was wrapping up a four-year career at Bowling Green State University. Last season, he played for the AHL’s Binghamton Senators – except for one 11-minute relief appearance with the big club. Now this.

But there is more to the story. When the Senators fired MacLean, general manager Bryan Murray cited too many turnovers and too little communication. Amid the well-deserved celebration of the Hamburglar, it’s easy to forget how well Craig Anderson played before he went down with an injury. He’s 14-13-8 with a 2.49 GAA and .923 save percentage this season. The Sens have had excellent goaltending all along; what they needed was structure and attention to detail.

Ottawa's clutch play down the stretch bodes well for a young team that's trending up. (AP)
Ottawa's clutch play down the stretch bodes well for a young team that's trending up. (AP)

It took time, but Cameron simplified the Senators’ game. They cut down on second and third chances against. They stopped forcing plays and concentrated on getting the puck out of their zone and into the offensive zone. They started playing in straight lines.

“I think we’ve just played a safer game,” Ryan said. “We stopped trying to run and gun with teams and win 4-3 and 5-4 and realized we’re not a team that generates a ton of offense if we run and gun. We generate through a cycle and getting pucks deep and grinding teams.”

The Senators became comfortable playing lower-scoring games. They learned not to panic and open up when behind.

“Even if we’re down a goal or two, it doesn’t really matter,” Karlsson said. “We keep playing the same game, and we don’t really fade away from the structure that we believe in. That’s what’s been winning us games ultimately.”

Tuesday night was a good example. The Senators carried the play against the shorthanded, struggling Red Wings. They had far more possession. They had far more scoring chances. Though Gustav Nyquist gave Detroit a 1-0 lead 5:43 into in the second period, though it looked like they weren’t going to be rewarded as the game dragged on, they didn’t take silly risks.

“I think we just stuck with it,” said rookie winger Mark Stone. “Early on in the year, we maybe get down two goals. We just come back now. We know if we stick with it, we’re going to win.”

Finally, MacArthur fired a puck from the high slot. It grazed a defender’s stick blade, altered course ever so slightly, glanced off the goaltender’s glove and fluttered into the net. Tie game. One point. Stone grabbed the second point by scoring the shootout winner.

“The way we played over the last two months, there’s no reason we can’t get back to that game,” Stone said. “Obviously it was exhausting the way we did it. We just continue to battle hard. There’s enough in this tank. We’re not an old team. We’ve got a lot of young guys.”

If the Senators don’t make the playoffs, there will be regrets. Why didn’t they play this way under MacLean? Why didn’t they promote Cameron sooner? Why did they let five out of six points get away over that 0-2-1 stretch?

But it ain’t over yet.

“We’ll see what we can do,” MacArthur said. “I think there’s still some magic under the hat here.”