By turns, the Ottawa Senators are the NHL’s most cursed team, and its most charmed.
Fans watching this hockey club – through the fingers that partially cover their eyes – and vacillate between screams of terror and triumph, from “Omigod, what else can go wrong” . . to – another impossible victory later — “the Senators are just an injury or two away from serious Stanley Cup contention.”
The worse their injury luck, the better their fortunes. Or so it seems – unless a very large bubble is about to burst.
With each passing week, a star Ottawa player falls to injury until there are very few stars remaining – and yet the Senators are not merely surviving in the Eastern Conference, they are gaining a foothold on a playoff position, with players like Kaspars Daugavins and Dave Dziurzynski making significant contributions.
Which injury will be the one that is ‘a bridge too far’ for the Senators to cross? Was it the ankle injury to goaltender Craig Anderson, suffered in Thursday’s shootout victory over the New York Rangers?
Or will the Anderson injury be like the previous calamities to befall this club and launch the careers of Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner, the NHL goaltenders in-waiting.
Head coach Paul MacLean declined to name his starting goalie for Saturday, when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Scotiabank Place for the first time this season. Speculation is that if MacLean were going to start Bishop, Anderson’s regular backup this season, he would have announced it Friday. But it may be he needs time to discuss the issue with his staff and general manager Bryan Murray.
When summoned, Lehner drove through the night, arriving around 4 a.m. from Binghamton to be here for Friday’s practice with the Senators. In his one start against Toronto, he beat the Leafs 3-2 on Oct. 30, 2011 at SBP.
This we know – one of the big men (6-4 Lehner or 6-7 Bishop) will be staring down Phil Kessel and the rest of the Leafs shooters Saturday.
Murray walked into the arena with Anderson on Friday, noted his slight limp, and said later he expects Anderson to be sidelined at least three or four days while his ankle fully recovers.
The Leafs beat the Senators 3-0 last Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, although Ottawa outshot Toronto 34-29 and probably deserved a better fate.
Strength at the top of the order? The loss of Anderson means the Senators have now lost five front-line players out of the starting six:
*Defenceman Jared Cowen suffered a hip injury during the NHL lockout, underwent surgery and is gone for the season
*Centre Jason Spezza, back injury Jan. 27 (it had been bothering him previously). Spezza underwent surgery and is expected to return to the lineup before the end of the regular season.
*Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, Achilles tendon sliced by Matt Cooke’s skate, Feb. 13. Karlsson underwent surgery and is lost for the season.
*Winger Milan Michalek, a 35-goal scorer in 2011-12, suffered a knee injury in the pre-game warmup on the night Karlsson was hurt in Pittsburgh. While Michalek’s injury was not considered serious, he has now missed five games and his return to the lineup is not imminent.
*Anderson, the NHL’s top rated goaltender, was slammed into his own goalpost Feb. 21 by a sliding Chris Kreider. A bit of added cruelty – Anderson stopped all 21 shots he faced against the Rangers but did not record the win. That honor went to Bishop, who gave up two goals in the third period but beat Henrik Lundqvist in the shootout.
And so it goes. A player goes down, another steps up.
In the span of all these injuries, the Senators have an overall record of 10-6-2, including a dominant 7-1-2 on home ice. In 7th place, but tied in points with teams ahead of them, the Senators are just two points out of first place, but also just four points ahead of 8th in the Eastern Conference logjam.
“The team is doing great right now,” Karlsson said on Friday. “It’s still a special season.”
Murray and MacLean credit their organizational staff and player depth.
“If you look at the names that are out, it certainly would have been easy to say it’s impossible to win games,” Murray said.
Missing Anderson, the GM said, simply means “another young guy gets a chance to play. We’ve got two young goaltenders that’ll do that.
“Too bad for Andy right now, I hope he gets the net back when he comes back, that’s all,” Murray said, teasingly.
“No, it doesn’t look like he’ll be long term,” Murray added. “But it is an opportunity for Robin to come up and for Ben to play some games. Hopefully they’ll just carry on the way we’ve been going.
“Andy’s been outstanding. Watching (the Rangers game) it sure didn’t look to me like he was going to give up a goal. He looked that strong and confident and his positioning is so sound.”
Karlsson’s foot may be injured, but he was able to put his finger on the Senators bad luck/good luck dichotomy.
“You start to wonder, when are the really good things going to happen to us?” Karlsson asked, before noting the good fortune may have already arrived — in the form of “winning games.”