The Ottawa Senators should not be where they are right now. Not according to the pundits and popular picks on the NHL playoff tree, at least.
They’re set to square off with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, and it’s the first time since 2007 they’ve made it to this point.
But how? How on earth can this be possible? Name a team-killing scenario—any one. The Senators have probably been through it.
Not enough revenue to raise payroll and be more competitive? Check.
Arena controversy? Check.
Losing star players for extended periods of time? Check.
And yet, here they are. So many reasons why they shouldn’t be, but they’ve just kept chugging along. The Senators don’t care that what they’ve accomplished isn’t supposed to be possible.
On the ice, they weren’t getting enough production from players they expected to perform. For example, winger Bobby Ryan recorded just 25 points in 62 games after averaging 55 the previous season. However, he has raised his game in the playoffs, with nine in 12 postseason games. Likewise, Derick Brassard had a mere 39 points in 81 contests, his lowest total since 2009-10, but he, too, has nine points in the Sens’ 12-game playoff run.
Center Kyle Turris and defenseman Dion Phaneuf were, in a manner of speaking, misfit toys in search of an island. They have flourished and found a haven in Ottawa. Both have played pivotal roles, and continue to do so in the playoffs. Phaneuf, in particular, has helped anchor the Sens’ defense and has averaged 24 minutes of ice time in the postseason, the sixth-most among all players from the four remaining playoff teams, and third-most on the Senators, trailing Erik Karlsson (28:56) and Cody Ceci (24:42).
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Sens throughout the season was the one confronting Nicholle Anderson, wife of goaltender Craig Anderson. She had been diagnosed with throat cancer, something that turned her husband’s and, by extension, his teammates’ world upside-down.
Anderson took three different leaves of absence throughout the season tending to Nicholle. During that time, backup goaltender Mike Condon—and others who were further down on the organizational depth chart—did a tremendous job filling in.
The first time Anderson left, on November 3, 2016, Mike Condon pitched a 27-save shutout against Vancouver.
Appropriately, when Anderson returned from his third (and longest) leave of absence on February 11, 2017, he recorded a shutout of his own, making 33 saves in a win over the New York Islanders.
“You don’t wish that upon your worst enemy,” says Senators winger Mark Stone. “For Craig, and especially Nicholle, too, she’s encouraged him to play at the top of his game. We’re just happy that he’s able to be with us.”
Beyond the crease, the Sens’ all-hands-on-deck mentality also helped ensure the team would stay in the playoff race. During Anderson’s 67-day absence between Dec. 5 and his return date in February, Ottawa went 13-9-4, a steady performance that was just enough to stay afloat.
As it turns out, the Senators are at their best when they’re facing the edge of the cliff. They thrive on it.
“We just have that never-die attitude,” says Stone. “Whatever happens, happens. If we stick to the way we play, the end result will take care of itself. If we stick to what we do, even on off nights, as long as we stay in the structure, it gives us the ability to win. And, with the goaltending that we have, it allows us to hover around in games. It just takes one or two shifts for us to get that mojo.”
There’s certainly no shortage of bulletin-board material in Ottawa, and the players are more than happy to rally around it, whether it be the latest financial concerns, the empty arena seats or lower-body injury.
“You use that,” says forward Clarke MacArthur, who knows a thing or two about climbing metaphoric mountains. “When you’re an underdog from Day One, with the injuries and everything that we’ve had this year, it’s a motivational tool for everybody.”
MacArthur’s story is a heart warmer. After battling a series of concussions, he’d been told by doctors that he was unlikely to play in the NHL again. Despite the harsh diagnosis, MacArthur was hell-bent on coming back, returning the play in Ottawa's final four games of the season.
His teammates took notice.
“In Clarke’s situation, it was such a long process,” said Stone. “We got to see him go through it, work as hard as he did and battle as hard as he did to come back. It was insanely impressive.”
As was the case when Anderson returned, MacArthur’s impact on the Sens’ locker room was seismic. In Game 6 of Ottawa’s first round clash with Boston, it was his power play goal in overtime that eliminated the Bruins.
His response? Euphoria.
“There’s nothing like living in the NHL and living in these playoffs,” MacArthur told reporters. “I want to stretch it out as long as I can.”
“We faced a lot of adversity—Anderson leaving, MacArthur coming back,” says forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who scored four times in a stunning Game 2 victory against the New York Rangers in the second round. “It was a lot of emotion that we were going through, but we did a pretty good job being there for them in the room. When they came back, they were just bringing a good energy to the team. They wanted to be with us, they wanted to compete with us and that’s what they did.”
Of course, having a world-class defenseman like Karlsson leading the charge doesn’t hurt.
“There’s not a single person in the league that can do what he does, so we’re very fortunate to have a guy like him,” says Stone. “He doesn’t say too much, but when he does, everybody listens. Just by the way he plays, with the intensity and the skill and all the intangibles, it just paves the way for everyone.”
Most bettors won’t be casting their lots on the Senators going into the next round, and even though the team is already playing with house money, none of its players have been lulled into a sense of complacency.
“Every series you go into, everyone’s kinda wondering when we’re done,” says MacArthur. “We’re gonna try and keep this going as long as we can.”