The Senators may have had home-ice advantage against the Boston Bruins in the first round, but few considered Ottawa as the surefire favorite. Underlying numbers were slanted in the Bruins’ favor, Boston had more offensive stars and it was hard to compare the two rosters even with the Bruins’ injuries and think it’d be the Senators who would come out the other side.
Six games later, though, we’re staring down a second-round matchup between the Senators and New York Rangers for the chance to head to the Eastern Conference final and it’s hard not to be happy for this Ottawa group.
In 2015-16, the Senators finished 11 points out of the post-season and few would have expected this. Matter of fact, ahead of the campaign, we picked the Senators to finish seventh in the Atlantic in our Yearbook. At the time, it wasn’t hard to justify. The only major off-season move the Senators made under new GM Pierre Dorion was a swap of Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard. There were no big free agent acquisitions, though, and the Senators entered the season with one of the league’s lowest payrolls so it was hard to see where any vast improvement would come from.
So, that Ottawa finds themselves in the second round gives them that the feeling of the plucky underdog, an overlooked and underrated squad that made it further than most would have imagined. But Ottawa’s story both in the regular season and through one round of the post-season goes well beyond their underdog status. There are several reasons why — if you happen to be looking for a team to support — the Senators could be the team to cheer for as the playoffs continue.
Erik Karlsson is on another level right now
Through the first three-quarters of the campaign, the Norris Trophy was Brent Burns’ to lose, but it’s a good thing awards aren’t decided before all 82 games are played.
Karlsson was a world beater over the final two months of the season. He was better than a point per game player, neared on 27 minutes of ice time per game and not only put his name at the forefront of Norris discussions but entered the conversation for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Karlsson’s undeniable star power makes him a joy to watch and there isn’t another defenseman in the league who can do the things Karlsson does on a near nightly basis. Take his saucer pass from Game 3. Who completes that pass, let alone thinks to attempt it? Karlsson. That’s who. And it’s because of plays such as that he’s become one of the most exciting players in the league right now.
Oh, and if you’re the old school, grit-and-toughness type, Karlsson told ESPN that he has been playing with two hairline fractures in his left foot for the past four weeks. He’s on one skate and playing better than any other rearguard in the league.
Bobby Ryan’s turnaround after difficult off-season loss
Ahead of the season, Ryan lost his mother, and in the days following her passing, Ryan penned a touching piece for The Players’ Tribune in which he shed light on how much his mother meant to him and the sacrifices she made in order for him to achieve his dream. Ryan’s tough off-season gave way to a difficult regular season, too. He wound up in the middle of the lineup and posted the worst totals of his career, scoring only 13 goals and 25 points in 62 games.
Ryan has been a different player in the post-season, though. He scored a dazzling goal in the opening game against the Bruins and was held off the score sheet just once in the entire series. Ryan had the game-winning goal in Games 4 and 5, assisted on the series-winning goal and finished up the first round with four goals and seven points in six games. Only three players put up more points in the first round. Given there was talk about a trade, buyout or lack of protection in the expansion draft, that Ryan has found his game at the most important time of the year has been remarkable.
Nicholle Anderson’s battle and Craig Anderson’s emotional return
Mere days into the campaign, it was announced that Nicholle Anderson, the wife of goaltender Craig Anderson, had been diagnosed with cancer. The day after the announcement, though, Anderson was back in the Senators’ crease, posting a 37-save shutout of the Edmonton Oilers in the lead up to one of the most emotional scenes of the season.
In order to be with and provide support for his wife, Anderson would end up leaving the Senators for a 26-game stretch spanning from early December to mid-February. However, upon his return, Anderson didn’t look as if he’d missed a beat. He stonewalled the New York Islanders in his return game, earning a 33-save shutout, and was among the league’s best goaltenders over the final two months of the season. It’s no surprise that has continued into the playoffs, either.
Clarke MacArthur fights back from concussions to become post-season hero
Several times over the past two seasons, whether MacArthur would ever return to the NHL was called into question and with good reason. Following four concussions in 18 months, the most recent of which occurred in the training camp leading up to the season, it was believed MacArthur’s career would have to end. However, he vowed to fight back and play again, but the doubts about his future intensified when it was announced he had been shut down for the season in January.
And January’s news is why it was so shocking to see MacArthur back on the ice in March. After practicing with the team for nearly a month, MacArthur made his return to the Senators lineup with only five days left in the season, and the April 4 game was the first time MacArthur saw NHL action since Oct. 14, 2015. It’s not as if MacArthur has simply been along for the ride since.
In the first round, MacArthur scored his first goal in nearly two full years and his celebration was the clear culmination of all the hard work he put in to being able to make his return to the game. But MacArthur’s encore was miles better than anyone could have expected. In Game 6 against Boston, with Ottawa on a power play and a series victory potentially on the line, MacArthur parked himself out front and shovelled home the series-winning goal in overtime. His recovery, return and performance in the first round have all been inspirational.
All of this is without mentioning Tom Pyatt, who spent two years plugging away in Switzerland just to work his way back to the NHL, or Chris Kelly, who missed all but 11 games last season after suffering a horrifying leg injury and made his return after almost a full season away from the game. You can add veteran Chris Neil, who has played more than 1,000 games without hoisting the Stanley Cup, to those who might garner some fan support, as well. And there’s also coaches Guy Boucher and Marc Crawford. Say what you will about the Senators’ defensive style of play, but both Boucher and Crawford made their returns to the NHL this season with Ottawa and have guided this team to a position that was well beyond where most believed the club could go.
Sure, Ottawa’s not the most alluring pick to win it all, but the Senators are incredibly intriguing on emotion alone and the stories of this season have been plenty. Ottawa might not win the Stanley Cup, but it sure is hard to cheer against them.
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