The Ottawa Senators are not a good hockey team.
That is one of the few things that I can say with confidence about the NHL’s North Division. The Ottawa Senators, sitting in 31st place in the league with a 4-12-1 record, boast an NHL worst -29 goal differential and have lost by at least three goals in seven of the 17 games they have played this season.
There are only two other things that I would say with certainty, and one, which is the fact that there is a tremendous amount of individual skill north of the border, is not relevant to this conversation. The other, which is relevant, is that from a team perspective, there is a whole lot of good, and not a lot of great in the North. When we talk about Playoff teams in that division, and teams that could win that division, I don’t believe we are talking about Stanley Cup contenders. The Senators help me make that point.
Let me start by saying that obviously, superstars like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and more make teams in the North Division scary. However, there are not many teams that from top to bottom make me think, “I don’t want to see that team in the postseason.” The performances by some of these clubs against Ottawa in the first half of February exemplify that.
I do understand and acknowledge that the Toronto Maple Leafs are at the top of the NHL standings and that the Montreal Canadiens are close behind. I would argue, though, that we already know that the Leafs can play in the regular-season, so we can’t get too excited until they prove that they can win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I would also argue that fans and experts are not prepared to put the Habs, a team most picked to miss the Playoffs, in the Cup contender category after one great month. I mean, I predicted that the Canadiens would represent the North in the NHL Semi-finals, and I’m not even ready to call them championship-level threats.
The Ottawa Senators might be in the process of exploiting their North Division rivals.
Part of the reason that I am in no hurry to crown those teams, or any other North Division teams, as Stanley Cup Champions is the fact that the Senators, as bad as they are, have defeated them. I know that Ottawa has to beat some teams eventually, and one of the best things about the NHL is the fact that any team can win on any given night, but look at what the Sens have done to three of their opponents in the last two weeks.
On Feb. 4, Ottawa took down the Canadiens 3-2. At the time, Montreal was 7-1-2 and was one of the hottest teams in the league. The loss to the Senators stopped them dead in their tracks. Including that loss, the Habs are limping through a 2-3-0 stretch that has seen the team become unable to score more than two goals in any game. The Sens certainly didn’t solve the Canadiens, but the momentum has come to a screeching halt.
Early the next week, the Senators lost to the Oilers, but managed to outshoot Edmonton 42-22. This isn’t exactly an indictment of Edmonton, but if you think about how lethal the Oilers’ offense is, and how dismal Ottawa has looked this year, is there really any reason for McDavid and company to get outshot against this team?
Yes, the Oilers picked up two points in the standings and are 4-0 versus the Sens, but they have mostly been close games, and knowing how inconsistent Edmonton can be, this is an instance where wins aren’t good enough when it comes to assessing their ability to win it all. I’d like to think that they’d show more consistency here.
Finally, on Monday, the Senators emerged victorious against the Maple Leafs after trailing by four goals late in the second period. Somehow, the league’s last place team erased a four goal deficit to beat the league’s first place team, and it did so in just over 20 minutes of play. These two teams have a couple of matchups ahead this week, but heading into Wednesday’s tilt, the Senators are 2-1 against the Maple Leafs this season. That simply should not be the case. If Toronto is truly to be viewed as a Cup contender, it cannot have a losing record (or anything close to a losing record) against a team like the Senators.
It is worth nothing that Ottawa also beat Winnipeg in February by the score of 2-1, but the Jets are 4-1 against the Senators, winning by three or more goals on three occasions. That type of close loss is not something to be alarmed by, because that is simply what happens when you play a professional hockey team that many times. The Jets have largely taken care of business when taking on the Senators.
I think part of what makes these results against the Ottawa Senators so troubling is the idea that we are in a “prove it” mindset regarding all of the North teams. Montreal is up-and-coming, the Oilers have struggled to even qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Toronto Maple Leafs can’t win once they get there. I have little confidence in any of these teams to really compete for a Stanley Cup, so when I watch them take on the worst team in hockey, I want to see convincing victories the majority of the time. If you feel like any North Division team is a real title threat, use games against Ottawa as a benchmark to see just how dominant (or not dominant) they actually are.