OTTAWA — They are a secret no longer. No more are they the forgotten, rebuilding Ottawa Senators.
Gone is the talk the Senators would have to spend two, three years near the basement of the league to scoop top draft picks toward a contending club several years down the road. Gone, too, is the November theory that maybe the Senators can hang around long enough to grab the final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, you know, just to give the kids a taste of playoff experience.
And while this isn’t a news flash — except perhaps for people living in Toronto, where Leafs fans remain despondent over Dion Phaneuf’s “most overrated player” status in a Sports Illustrated player poll — the Senators are a holy terror.
They are winners of 10 of their past 13 games, including their latest, Thursday’s 3-0 shutout of the first-place New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Two of Ottawa’s three losses came in extra time, so they were worth a point to boost the Senators’ total to 54 points in 45 games (on pace for 99 points).
Since starting the season 1-5, living up to popular pre-season predictions of a last-place or near-last-place finish in the Eastern Conference, the Senators have gone 23-10-6. Ottawa’s almost-overnight rebirth is raising eyebrows as well as expectations of a team that entered the season with none to speak of.
Head coach Paul MacLean can continue with his down-home-aw-shucks-we’re-just-trying-to-get-better shtick (hey, it’s working), but this Senators group is suddenly a force to be reckoned with in the topsy-turvy east.
How topsy-turvy? I crunched a few numbers. Not many, math was never my long suit, but enough to look at the Eastern Conference teams after games of Jan. 12 last year (daytime standings of Jan. 13, in other words), compared to daytime Jan. 13 this year.
Some of the teams have played a game or two more or less than a year ago, but some of the point differences, 365 days apart, are astounding, none more so than the Senators (plus-16 in point total) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (minus-19).
The Pittsburgh Penguins, riddled with injuries, are minus-12, as are the Cirque du Jour known as the Montreal Canadiens. After Ottawa, the New York Islanders have made the biggest jump, at plus-12, but when a team is so deep into a hole that a giant leap only regains ground level, plus-12 doesn’t do much.
That’s the Islanders. And that is the point here.
Modest gains by mediocre or bad teams don’t have the impact of plunges by clubs expected to be good. As if the resurgent Senators needed help, they are getting it by horrific seasons experienced by teams like Washington and Pittsburgh, ranked 1-2 in The Hockey News’ predictions for the 2011-12 season.
The publication had Ottawa 15th, and few took it to task for that call. The Capitals are minus-9 from a year ago, showing only slight signs of coming out of their funk.
The Penguins, considered a serious Stanley Cup threat at the outset, are at serious risk of missing the playoffs. So, too, are the Buffalo Sabres, who were expected to be much improved after a spending spree.
THN had the Sabres fifth, a spot the Senators now occupy. At this writing, the Sabres are 11th.
The Canadiens are a mess and God bless ’em if trading Michael Cammalleri, after firing coach Jacques Martin and assistant Perry Pearn, improves the team.
The Lightning is approaching double digit numbers from the playoff line and the Carolina Hurricanes seem destined to go quietly into that good off-season.
So, which of the non-playoff teams at the moment seems most likely to depose any of the current top eight? The Penguins? Jets? Sabres? Habs? Tampa? Not one of them is going to keep the contenders up at night, losing sleep in worry.
Pittsburgh, should it ever get the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang back into the lineup before this season is over, has the pedigree to threaten, but lately has collapsed under the weight of personnel losses. The Penguins took a six-game losing streak into Friday’s game against Florida.
Add it all up and the prognosis for the Senators is good, provided they maintain their own good health.
A team’s status in a respective conference is relative to the strength of the competition. To this point in the season, several of the teams that might have threatened the Senators ability to qualify for the playoffs have instead been part of the soft underbelly of the east. If the pattern holds, there won’t be a question of the Senators qualifying for the post-season. The only issue will be how high in the standings they can climb and whether it’s high enough to have home-ice advantage for the first round or even beyond.
MacLean wouldn’t hear of such talk so soon, so we’ll keep this to ourselves while the Senators wrap up their road trip against a Canadiens franchise that will soon look forward to a thorough spring cleaning.