Senators have deck stacked against them in hunt for playoff spot

The Senators have a legitimate shot at making the postseason but it certainly won't be easy.

It has been almost six years since the Ottawa Senators last made the playoffs — a run which saw them advance to the 2017 Eastern Conference final. Now, after years of disappointment, the franchise has a glimmer of hope of ending its drought.

The Senators are just five points shy of the final wild-card seed in the East with 19 games remaining, and only need to leapfrog two competitors: the Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

So could the Senators become the fourth Canadian team to enter the playoff conversation, joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets? Possibly. But the odds remain stacked against them.

That is something Ottawa’s skaters are probably accustomed to by now, as the franchise appeared destined for another spring without meaningful hockey less than three weeks from the March 3 trade deadline. At 24-24-3 with 51 points on Feb. 12, the Senators were much closer to the draft lottery than a playoff spot.

The Senators have rocketed up the NHL standings but still have a tough path to a playoff spot. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Senators have rocketed up the NHL standings but still have a tough path to a playoff spot. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Then, out of nowhere, the club won both halves of its back-to-back versus the Calgary Flames and New York Islanders, generating much-needed momentum and marking the beginning of its late-season postseason push.

From there, the Senators secured points in seven of their next nine contests and embarked on a five-game winning streak — including a back-to-back sweep of the Detroit Red Wings at the end of February.

Ottawa performed to an impressive 8-2-1 record from Feb. 13 to March 4, producing the third-best mark in the NHL during that span behind the Boston Bruins (10-0-0) and Minnesota Wild (8-1-2). And that put the Sens within just a few points of a wild-card position.

Much of that progress came undone Monday as the Senators’ playoff aspirations took a significant hit following an embarrassing 5-0 defeat to the Chicago Blackhawks. To make matters worse, the Penguins, Islanders and Panthers were each victorious Tuesday night.

This recent setback now puts the franchise in a challenging position, sitting tied with Buffalo and Washington at 68 points, five back of Pittsburgh for the second wild-card seed and six behind New York for the first. It has also dropped Ottawa’s playoff odds to 19.6 percent, the lowest since March 2.

The encouraging news is the Senators remain in the playoff chase, especially since they own two games in hand on the Panthers and three on the Islanders.

Strength of schedule not on Senators' side

The Penguins, who have played the same amount of games as Ottawa (63), figure to account for one of the two remaining spots thanks to their favourable postseason odds (91.5 percent). At 32-22-9 with 73 points, the Penguins are in a pretty good position, but it also helps they have the eighth-easiest remaining schedule (as of Wednesday) league-wide.

While the Islanders only have 16 games left, they are one spot behind the Pens with the ninth-easiest remaining schedule. Ottawa, meanwhile, features the toughest remaining schedule in the league.

Failing to capture two points over the rebuilding Blackhawks was a missed opportunity for the Senators — something that will likely sting even more down the stretch, as only three of their 19 remaining contests are against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage.

Up first is Thursday’s showdown at Climate Pledge Arena versus the Seattle Kraken, who enter the bout riding a five-game winning streak. If that weren’t enough, the Senators have a brutal stretch from March 14-25 where they’ll face Edmonton, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Boston, Tampa Bay and New Jersey.

Ottawa’s next 10 games could ultimately decide its playoff destiny. Anything less than a 5-5 performance will almost certainly leave the franchise with little-to-no hope of catching New York or Pittsburgh. And the team definitely can’t afford to have any repeated slip-ups like Monday night.

What Ottawa needs from its roster

One thing the Senators do have going for themselves is an energized roster following the addition of star defenceman Jakob Chychrun, who was acquired to help provide relief for overworked D-men like Thomas Chabot and Jake Sanderson. So far, he has done precisely that.

The 24-year-old already has one goal and two points in three contests with Ottawa, notching his first marker at the Canadian Tire Centre with his grandfather, John, in attendance.

Claude Giroux’s leadership could also be a noticeable factor down the stretch, as the 35-year-old features nine seasons of postseason experience — by far the most on the team. But Giroux can’t carry the club alone. He needs others to step up.

That's been the case for Ottawa lately, with Tim Stützle leading the way in goals (nine) and points (17) since Feb. 13. Captain Brady Tkachuk has also served as a reliable source of offence, ranking second in goals (six) and tied for second with Giroux in points (14).

Secondary scoring will be just as vital the rest of the way, though, with the Senators needing consistent production from Alex DeBrincat, Drake Batherson, Derick Brassard and Shane Pinto, who have combined for just six points over the last three games.

Goaltending will also be a massive piece of the puzzle. With Cam Talbot sidelined for three weeks due to injury, the onus will shift to Mads Sogaard, who owns a 2.77 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage across seven NHL games in 2022-23.

The Senators need Claude Giroux #28 and Mads Sogaard #40 to shoulder a big load down the stretch. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
The Senators need Claude Giroux #28 and Mads Sogaard #40 to shoulder a big load down the stretch. (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Senators have done this before

Ottawa’s current playoff hopes may seem improbable, and understandably so, but the franchise has pulled off the impossible before. This season’s roster isn’t the same as the one that surged into the playoffs by winning 23 of its final 31 games in 2015. Still, both versions were situated similarly before their respective runs.

The 2014-15 Senators were 14 points back of a playoff spot on Feb. 9 and ultimately jumped ahead of seven other franchises to finish with the first wild-card seed. This year’s squad might not be able to climb as high as its predecessor, but history could repeat itself.

As a franchise expected to introduce a new ownership group in the coming months, welcoming them with an unexpected playoff run would be the ultimate surprise.