The Ottawa Senators’ lineup features household names such as Patrick Wiercioch, Zack Smith and Jakob Silfverberg. OK, so they’re not really household names, at least not to most outside the Senators’ fan base.
But in the absence of their top netminder (Craig Anderson), their top defenseman (defending Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson) and top center (Jason Spezza), the Senators have not crumbled, they have not fallen out of the playoff mix. In fact, their 4-1 win Sunday over the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets (yeah, we know, sounds funny, doesn’t it?) moved them comfortably into 5th place in the Eastern Conference.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the Sens have a seven-point lead on the 9th-place New York Islanders (and yes, that sounds funny, too), so it would take a precipitous fall for the Sens not to make the playoffs for a second straight season. Good for Paul MacLean, who is putting himself in good position for a second straight nomination as coach of the year and GM Bryan Murray, who has deftly retooled his squad on the run.
But big-picture, the Sens’ refusal to die, the continued strong play of the Jets and Islanders and the refusal of the New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs to simply lie down in spite of a stretch of uneven play has created the potential for a most unlikely playoff landscape. Every year since 1993, either the Philadelphia Flyers or the New York Rangers has made the playoffs. This year? Many folks liked the Rangers to emerge as the top club in the Eastern Conference and were a sexy pick to win their first Stanley Cup since 1994. Most folks assumed the Flyers would be a playoff team, tangling with the Rangers and Penguins for top spot in the Atlantic Division. As of Monday, the Rangers had lost three straight, were without key defenseman Marc Staal and were sitting in 10th place, three points out of 8th place. The Flyers, meanwhile, were sitting a point back of the Rangers and having played 29 games to the Rangers’ 27, have much less margin for error in terms of getting back into the hunt.
Now, it’s entirely possible both teams will end up in the top eight when the dust clears April 27. But the fact teams such as the Senators, Jets, who beat the Rangers in Winnipeg last week, Islanders and Leafs aren’t playing as expected puts more pressure on the Flyers and Rangers to put together prolonged stretches of quality play, something that has eluded both teams for most of this shortened season.