With 14 games to play the Senators are sitting 5th in the Eastern conference nine points up on the 9th New York Islanders, once again a big surprise to most. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Senators strong play is that they've been able to overcome significant injuries to some of their best players.
The Senators were dealt a serious blow when they lost Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen two of their best defenceman to injuries. On top of that they're without two of their best forwards in Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. If losing your two best defencemen and forwards isn't bad enough the Senators number one goalie and shoe-in Vezina candidate Craig Anderson also went down with an injury.
For most teams losing a player of Spezza's caliber alone would be enough to end their season, let alone losing five of your best players. But for the Senators losing those players doesn't seem to have slowed them down.
Most expected the Senators to crumble, to count this season as a wash due to key injuries- I mean who would blame them if they packed it in and aimed for a high pick? Instead the Senators that were left standing, lead by captain Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Neil bonded together and have put together arguably the strongest Senators team we've seen in years.
I had the pleasure of watching the Senators absolutely shutdown the New York Rangers last Thursday evening. The Senators were the stronger, better and faster team, the Rangers were unable to generate anything and when they did have a spark Ben Bishop shut the door. I watched in awe at how good the Senators played even without Karlsson and Spezza and Anderson. They had total confidence in themselves and each other, the chemistry was remarkable.
The last key player to be injured for the Senators was goaltender Craig Anderson who had been the backbone of the team after other key players went down. Anderson was 8-4-4 on the season with an .952 Save Percentage and 1.49 Goals Against Average- which still leads the league and he hasn't played since February 21! The Senators were relying on Anderson to come up big every night to win those close one-goal games and he hadn't disappointed allowing only 22 goals against all season.
When he went down there were some serious doubts about whether or not Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner would be able to hold down the fort like Anderson
had been doing. But both netminders have stepped up and given the Senators the goaltending they need. Bishop has held down the fort appearing in 13 games winning 8 and posting a .922 Save Percentage. He's making an argument that he's ready for a full-time gig between the pipes which is great news for the Senators moving forwardIn addition to the goalies stepping up to the plate Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad have both stepped up proving they can handle bigger roles. Turris leads the team in scoring with 8 goals and 22 points, while Zibanejed has begun to find his comfort zone in the NHL putting up 6 goals and 15 points.The rookie Jakob Silfverberg has also made a big splash putting up 8 goals tying him for the team lead in goals and leads the team with 97 shots. The Swedish rookie is turning heads and already drawing comparisons to the Senators legendary captain.
“He can play in all situations. I liken him to Milan Michalek and Alfredsson.” ~ Senators coach Paul MacLean.
Speaking of the captain, Daniel Alfredsson has done a fantastic job keeping the team together. With 8 goals and 20 points he's contributing on the ice. But this year it's his contributions off the ice that mean the most. He's been able to keep the players together and motivated, the Senators fully believe they are a top notch team.
The Senators have had no choice but to rush some of their AHL top prospects into bigger roles in the NHL earlier than expected- but as a result they've answered the call and have helped the Senators to win games. Playing a basic fundamental style of hockey which focuses on defence, blocking shots and being physical allows the younger Senators to adjust and find their games. Lucky for MacLean the players- especially the younger rookies - are buying into his system.
Even without their four best skaters and number one netminder the Senators are still going to make the playoffs. It's remarkable how they've been able to band together to play such a high level of hockey night after night and speaks volumes to the character in that dressing room.
The Senators may not be the best team in the Eastern Conference or have the flashy players that the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers have but the Senators have had consistent success and are proving they're not to be taken lightly. At the end of the season the Senators are likely to finish between 4th and 7th place in the East and they'll be up against some tough competition. But the way the Senators have been playing and getting production from younger guys there's no telling how far this team can go and I wouldn't be surprised to see them make a deep playoff run.
With Anderson coming back soon, Spezza possibly returning in the post-season, Alfredsson leading the way and the young rookies stepping up the Senators are the "wild card" or underdogs in the Eastern Conference this season.
While the odds may be against them they are a team that believes in themselves and as a result are the Eastern Conference underdogs heading into the post-season. Look for the Senators to make a major splash in playoffs.