Where has the time gone?
Seems like only yesterday the Senators were gathering at training camp, talking a good game about the upcoming season, buoyed by their own performance the year before, as well as pre-season forecasts that had Ottawa among the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.
It sure looks that way as the Senators approach the midpoint of the schedule. Game 41 arrives Saturday with a home game against the Boston Bruins. The lesson learned to date: don’t assume too much from a 48-game, lockout-shortened season in which teams only played within their own conference.
The Senators’ return to an 82-game, interconference schedule has been fraught with pitfalls, as their 15-17-7 record would suggest. Only a dramatic reversal can salvage what has been a sorry start.
Asked to depict the first half in a word, new captain Jason Spezza chose this word: “Frustrating.”
“At times, it seems like we’re coming out of it, and we haven’t been able to, so it’s been a frustrating time,” Spezza said. “It seems like we haven’t been able to gain any momentum — we’ve been pressing a little too much from Day 1 … hopefully we learn from it for the second half.”
After Ottawa’s stunning 5-0 defeat of Pittsburgh on Monday, Spezza said he hoped the uplifting victory would generate goodwill during the holiday break and help the club “come back strong” after Christmas.
Here’s a snapshot of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the first half.
THEY SHOOT THEY SCORE: Last year’s team, minus Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek for long stretches, scored by committee. This year’s group is among the top five in the conference in goals scored. In general, generating offence has not been their issue, although it could be argued that clutch goals in tight games have been hard to find.
NEWBIES: No complaints about the production and performance of Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur. Ryan leads the team in goals with 17 and is second in points with 34, and MacArthur is not far behind. In the room, they are a breath of fresh air.
POWER SURGE: As troubled and inconsistent as this team has been, the Senators have been productive with the man advantage, standing 11th in the league with a 19.3 per cent success rate. Note to coach controlling ice time — Ryan leads all Senators with six power-play goals.
FRIENDLY ’HOOD: If it’s true that misery loves company, the Senators have lots of it in the mediocre Eastern Conference, where 80-odd points could be enough to secure a wild-card playoff berth. The Sens still hope to get there, but face a tough road schedule in January after failing to capitalize on many of their 11 home dates in December. Until their victory over Pittsburgh, the Senators had the seventh-worst home record in the league. Beating the Penguins helped Ottawa improve to 8-10-4 at the CTC. As poorly as they have played, the Senators remain just four points behind Toronto for a wild-card spot. In the East, hope springs eternal.
Remember that winning streak back in early November? Then your memory is outstanding. Not since Nov. 5-7-9 have the Senators won consecutive games.
“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster,” says veteran defenceman Chris Phillips, assessing the first half of the season. “At times we’ve showed signs of promise and being on the right track, and then it’s just gone downhill on us. Very inconsistent. If we can fix that … just be a little bit better every day, things will turn around for us.”
STOP THE BLEEDING: Those “pesky” Sens of last year could keep the puck out of the net. With 104 goals allowed in 48 games (2.1 goals per game), no NHL team was stingier. This year? A trickle became a torrent, as the Senators have already blown past the century mark and rank 28th in goals allowed with 126. Goaltending, defensive giveaways and zone coverage have all been recurring issues.
CHEMISTRY 101: Head coach Paul MacLean refers to his line combinations as “bingo balls” falling out of the hopper. It’s no joke. The Senators have had a horrible time finding lines and defensive pairings to jell, beyond the one consistently productive line of Ryan, MacArthur and Kyle Turris.
PK KILLING THEM: See file on goals allowed. Many of them have come on the power play, where the former No. 1 killing team of a year ago has fallen to 24th in the league, at 79.1 per cent. How did this happen? Coaches point to tired, less aggressive killers, but the elephant in the room in these discussions is the goaltending. Remember the hockey cliché — your goalie is your best penalty killer. Anderson’s save percentage on the PK has been awful — although he escaped unscathed against the Penguins’ power play Monday while he and the other penalty killers delighted in six successful kills.
PIMS ARE US: It doesn’t help the PK forces that the Senators take more minor penalties than any other team and play short-handed more than any other team. Through 39 games, 163 times the Sens have been called on to kill a penalty.
DEVELOPMENT ON D: Back in those happy camp days, the organization was supremely confident that Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch were ready to step into top-four duty and there was little concern the club would miss departing veterans Sergei Gonchar and Andre Benoit. No one foresaw that Wiercioch would sit out several games as a healthy scratch, or that both Mark Borowiecki and then Cody Ceci would be looked upon as defensive “saviours” for their smart play after being called up from the AHL. Progress in a young player can rarely be charted in a steady graph line, and this year that applies to all of Ottawa’s young defencemen. Even the reigning veterans have had their issues. As MacLean said earlier this week, identifying his team’s greatness weakness: “We play in our own zone a lot. It forces us to take penalties, and (give up) more scoring opportunities. We need to get out of our zone.”
SAVE PERCENTAGE: Last season, Craig Anderson’s numbers were otherworldly: a 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in 24 games played. From his best season to one of his worst, Anderson’s current numbers are 3.27 goals against and .901 save percentage (escaping the dreaded .800-range thanks to his Monday shutout).
WEST BEST: Among Ottawa’s other issues, western teams have had the Sens’ lunch in nearly every east-west conflict. The overall tally: 2-9-3.
CONACHER DROUGHT: When the Senators moved goaltender Ben Bishop to Tampa Bay for little Cory Conacher, there was mild enthusiasm in Ottawa for the winger that had gained some rookie of the year attention for a productive start to the season with the Lightning. Conacher, though, tailed off prior to the trade and now has five goals in 49 games for Ottawa. On Monday, he ended a 30-game drought by scoring goal No. 5 in the Senators’ 5-0 victory. He last scored on Oct. 15. “It’s a weight off my back,” Conacher said. He hopes to be “lighter,” more productive in the new year.
MINUS-MICHALEK: Thank goodness for Nail Yakupov. Other than the Edmonton Oilers youngster, no one has a worse plus/minus than Senators winger Michalek and his minus-19. Never been a big fan of plus-minus as a statistic, but it is broadly suggestive here of just how rough a season this has been for No. 9. A proud veteran and former 35-goal scorer (2011-12), Michalek is heading toward free agency with some horrible numbers, not the least of which are the six goals he has scored.
Like his teammates, Michalek hopes a page can be turned on the first half of the season.