Friday February 27th, 2015

While a nightly game of leapfrog has turned the Western Conference playoff race into an edge-of-your-seat thriller, there’s been little to love about the battle for eighth place in the East.

The Bruins currently hold the second wild-card ticket, but Boston has displayed a decided lack of enthusiasm for keeping it, winning just two of their last 10 games (2-6-2).

Fortunately for the B’s, they are wounded lambs surrounded by toothless wolves. Boston has seemed more than willing to cede their position, but their pursuers have refused to take it.

Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad showed rare excellence at age 19

The Panthers are squandering a glorious opportunity, going 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and scoring just four goals in their last four. The Flyers, briefly buoyed by wins over the Predators and the Capitals last weekend, revealed themselves to be playoff posers this week with losses to both the Hurricanes and the Maple Leafs.

At this point, the decent thing to do might be to award whoever finishes atop the conference a first-round bye—nobody seems to want this thing ... except maybe for the surprising Senators.

Yeah, it’s hard to figure. Here’s a team—a team that already carries the lowest payroll in the NHL—actively looking to sell off some aging but important veterans (Chris Phillips, Chris Neil) at the deadline. A team that has the 25th-ranked power play in the league. A team that allows 32.4 shots per game, more than all but four other clubs. And on top of all that, both of Ottawa’s regular goalies, Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, are sidelined with injuries. It was no surprise that, a little more than two weeks ago, the Sens were a playoff afterthought, with 14 points separating them from the Bruins.

Yet here we are this morning, and Ottawa has clawed to within five points of Boston (with a game in hand) on the strength of a remarkable and unexpected 5-1-1 run. The Senators’ resurgence has been keyed by a most unlikely hero: third-string goalie Andrew Hammond.

Ranking NHL's 10 most promising defensemen under the age of 23

The 27-year-old Bowling Green grad has made four starts since he was pressed into action after Lehner was injured in a goalmouth collision with teammate Clarke MacArthur last week. Hammond has not only won all four games, he’s also posted back-to-back shutouts, blanking the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday and then halting the Kings’ eight-game winning streak with a 35-save effort in a 1–0 win at Staples Center on Thursday.

It’s an improbable success story, the 27-year-old rookie with the 1.15 goals-against average and the .962 save percentage—but it’s one that suggests that the Senators might actually have a chance. No one expects Hammond to keep up this pace (let alone his 172:22 shutout streak), but if he can help Ottawa hang tight for the next couple of weeks, then the Sens will get a chance to take down the Bruins in head-to-head matchups. The teams are set to face off twice next month, on March 10 and March 19, with both games to be played at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Center.

Maybe we’ll get a fight to a finish in the East after all.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.