Just over a week ago, the Ottawa Senators were rolling.
They had a record of 12-4 in their previous 16 games, including a five-game winning streak. They had just acquired Jakob Chychrun, the elusive top four addition to the defence. He scored his first goal for the Sens in a 5-2 win over Columbus.
Remarkably, Ottawa had closed the playoff gap and put Conference rivals like Buffalo, Florida and Washington in their rear-view mirror. But because of the Sens’ terrible start to the season (again), they had to keep winning, just to keep those teams at bay.
As the Sens prepared for a five game road trip, they knew a victory over 31st place Chicago last Monday would have moved them to within one point of a playoff spot. That’s an impressive notion for a team like the Sens, who were dead last in the Conference on November 25th, 11 points out of a playoff spot.
But the sad-sack Hawks, fresh off their recent fire sale, showed up and casually pounded the Sens 5-0.
The team that, back in November, had burned off all of their room for error, is suddenly making tons of them. Ottawa has gone 1-3 so far on this road trip, giving up 19 goals in the 4 games. The 3 losses were against non-playoff teams who collectively stomped the Sens 15-3 in the past week.
And what a difference a week can make in the standings. Florida, Washington and Buffalo are all now back in front of the Sens. Even Detroit, which recently got trampled in Ottawa two games in a row, is only a point behind the Sens right now.
With 16 games to play, the Senators are four teams and six points out of a playoff spot. That’s a brutal hill to climb, even if they were fully healthy and playing their best.
But the Sens’ offence has dried up and the once imposing power play is actually hurting them now. For the past month, when the Sens have the extra man, they’ve literally given up as many goals (7) as they’ve scored.
The team defence – forwards included – is suddenly back in November mode. If it continues to be that porous Tuesday night in Edmonton against Connor McDavid, we may have a Sittler Watch (Darryl Sittler holds the NHL record of 10 points in a game).
And the injuries continue to pile up. They’re already rolling out two minor league goalies and now Thomas Chabot and Mathieu Joseph may be sidelined after injuries Sunday night in Calgary.
The Senators have repeatedly celebrated the fact they’re now playing meaningful NHL games, but they’re obviously not used to the pressure that comes with that. Nor is their head coach, who continues to learn on the job. With or without the puck, it’s a lot easier to execute and do the right things when the game doesn’t matter and there’s nothing to lose.
In Chicago last Monday, they had a chance to become true contenders for a playoff spot and when things didn’t go their way early on, they began to scramble, knowing what was on the line and what they had to lose. In game 5 of this road trip, we’re still waiting for them to regain their February fire, confidence and composure.
On the bright side, this trip and the Sens’ brief flirtation with a playoff spot are filled with good lessons and important experience. Both should serve them well in year seven of the rebuild.
By Steve Warne