Four factors to watch as the Senators hit the stretch drive

Hockey as practiced by the gold medal-winning Canadian Olympic team in Sochi flirted with perfection: Fast, efficient, beautiful.

Four factors to watch as the Senators hit the stretch drive
Mika Zibanejad scores on Jonas Gustavsson in the 3rd period as the Ottawa Senators take on the Detroit Red Wings in NHL action at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, on December 1, 2013. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

Hockey as practiced by the gold medal-winning Canadian Olympic team in Sochi flirted with perfection: Fast, efficient, beautiful.
So the kickoff to the National Hockey League’s stretch drive will be a bit like running that red-lined Lamborghini right into a bridge embankment, as the league-worst Buffalo Sabres host the middling Carolina Hurricanes in the only game Tuesday night.
Fortunately, the rest of the league rumbles to life over the following two evenings, and compelling hockey abounds. In the thick of the playoff race are the Ottawa Senators, who return to practice Monday after a day off, and return to game action Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings.
With Daniel Alfredsson and Co. just a point up on the Senators for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (and with a game in hand to boot), there will be no easing back into the schedule. They’ll need to be ready from the get-go.
After recapping their five-on-five systems last week, the Senators will hit the ice Monday with an eye toward perfecting their special teams.
“The first three days (of practice) … we believed we handled it the right way,” said coach Paul MacLean, who started things slow last week, then bag skated his troops Saturday before granting them a day off to watch the gold medal hockey final. “We come back Monday and get right back to work.
“The stuff we’ve wanted to work on, we’ve worked on, but coming back Monday, we’ll work on the power play and penalty kill for the most part, and that’s going to be the focus for the next few days of practice, and then an overall review again on Tuesday.”
A couple of familiar faces could back on the ice Monday, including winger Bobby Ryan, who sat out last week’s sessions with an undisclosed injury.
His exclusion from the U.S. Olympic team turned out to be a blessing for his NHL employer: Ryan would have almost certainly felt compelled to play through whatever is ailing him if he’d made the cut.
Instead, he’s benefited from an opportunity to rest up and be ready for the resumption of play here.
That opportunity, defenceman Marc Methot suggested, could come into play down the stretch for teams like the Senators.
“For me, personally, if I’m not able to play hockey, I’m taking advantage of this time to relax,” he said. “And like I said, this gives a big opportunity for some of the teams around the league to kind of heal up and get ready to go on this last big stretch.”
Milan Michalek, who played for the Czechs in Sochi, should be back Monday as well, though he has the option to skip practice due to his Olympic participation.

FOUR FACTORS TO WATCH DOWN THE STRETCH

Here are some of the variables that could affect the Senators’ postseason chances in the coming weeks.

1. THE POSSESSION NUMBERS

During the first quarter of season, the Senators’ possession metrics were something of a dumpster fire. In their first 24 games, they only managed to lead their opponents in five-on-five shot attempts (excluding blocked shots) nine times, according to numbers compiled by extraskater.com. Since then, they’ve gone 23-12 in that department and re-established themselves in the playoff race. If they continue to take care of the puck, the points should take care of themselves.

2. THE SCHEDULE

Part of the reason for Ottawa’s slow start was a difficult October, which featured a seemingly endless string of road match-ups against the Western Conference’s best teams. The good news for the Senators is that the remaining schedule works in their favour, at least when compared with those of the two teams they’re chasing.

Senators
Games remaining: 23
On the road: 11 (47 per cent)
Against current playoff teams: 12 (52 per cent)

Wings
Games remaining: 24
On the road: 13 (54 per cent)
Against playoff teams: 14 (58 per cent)

Leafs
Games remaining: 22
On the road: 13 (59 per cent)
Against playoff teams: 14 (63 per cent)

3. THE TARGETS

The web site sportsclubstats.com has the Senators at a 26.7 per cent probability to make the playoffs, given the slow-moving Metropolitan division doesn’t provide them with a postseason path. So, as of now, it’s a matter of catching the wild card Leafs and/or Wings. A couple more reasons the Senators should feel OK about their chances: The aging Wings sent 10 players to the Olympics and have likely lost captain Henrik Zetterberg for the rest of the regular season to back surgery. And if the Senators’ possession numbers were a dumpster fire, you’d have to set a landfill ablaze to capture the stench of the Leafs’ metrics. If any team is going to crash down the stretch, it’s this one.

4. THE CALENDAR

The final quarter of the season will roll into view next week, which means teams on the outside looking in, like the Senators, will be almost out of racetrack. Right now, the Red Wings are on pace to close the season with around 90.4 points. If that number holds, the Senators will need a record in the neighbourhood of 12-7-4 to get to 91 — and that still might not be good enough. A streak of even three or four regulation losses will be enough to bury them.

Twitter.com/SensReporter

Tags:

What do you think? Leave a comment