I’ve watched many iterations of the Ottawa Senators. I remember when they first captured my heart by defeating the New Jersey Devils as an 8 seed in 1998. I remember when we traded Ron Tugnutt for Tom Barrasso and thinking, "That can’t be right..." I remember Yashin sitting out an entire year and I remember everyone hating him for it. I remember sitting through what seemed like countless playoff series where Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour stood on their heads. I remember when Jeff Friesen broke my heart in 2003. I remember Senators teams that started hot, and then fell apart down the stretch. I remember a Senators team that started cold, then rode an improbable hot streak all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. I’ve seen almost everything there is to see from this team, but I can’t remember seeing anything like this.
You see, according to various talking heads, the Ottawa Senators aren’t supposed to be a very good hockey team this year. If you looked at the roster on paper, you’d be hard pressed to make an argument to the contrary. Our blueline is made up of veterans who are past their primes, young, unproven prospects, and career AHLers. Our best player is Jason Spezza, a player who should be on the decline. Spezza’s wingers are a man who has undergone two knee surgeries, and someone no one outside of Ottawa had ever heard of. The heart and soul of the team, Daniel Alfredsson, is coming off a season in which he suffered an injury which could have been considered career threatening, and is now in the twilight of his career at 39. The rest of the team is filled out with developing prospects (see: Condra, Butler, etc.), players with a history of underperforming (see: Foligno, Nick and Turris, Kyle) and tough guys with intangibles, but not much scoring (see: "Dangles" Konopka). Finally in net we have a goalie who was so bad last year, another team willingly took Brian Elliot onto their roster just to get rid him. And Alex Auld. We also have Alex Auld. Granted, I’m slightly underselling the team slight here, but given all this, I’d still say it’s pretty improbable that halfway through the year Ottawa is sitting 5th in the Eastern Conference.
Spezza’s been brilliant, Michalek started the year by channelling his inner Heatley (Seriously, is "Ottawa won the Heatley trade" now not a hilarious position to take in an argument now?), and Erik Karlsson has been a revelation. Alfie refuses to slow down even though he can’t carry the play like he used to. Neither Sergei Gonchar nor Brian Lee has been an unmitigated bag of fail, and even Filip Kuba is a +7 on the season. (Although, I have started referring to Kuba as, "The 2nd Round Draft Pick We’ll Get When We Trade Kuba at The Deadline". I’m just trying to stay ahead of the curve.)
Secondary scoring, long a weak point for Ottawa, has been coming like manna from heaven. Colin Greening started out hot, but he’s since cooled. Still, if it hasn’t been Greening with a timely goal, it’s been Nick Foligno. If it’s not Nick Foligno, it’s Z. Smith. If it’s not Z. Smith, it’s Condra. Against Buffalo, Ottawa won a game where their goal scorers were Matt Carkner and Chris Neil! I hardly think I'm slandering either of those guys to say that they aren't known for their offensive contributions, epic 3OT playoff goals aside, but dammit if they didn't contribute anyway.
The most impressive thing about Ottawa this year, however, has been their never-say-die attitude. There was that time they almost came back from 4-0 down vs. Toronto. There was that time they came back from 2-0 down vs. Minnesota. There was that time they scored two goals in the last minute of the game to beat Columbus. There was that time they scored 3 goals in the 3rd period vs. The Rangers to eventually win in a shootout. I could go on. Hell, in the past 7 days, Ottawa has won games in OT from 3-0 and 2-0 down. This team just doesn’t know how to quit, and I love them for it. No deficit is too large.
Regardless of what has happened in any game, I feel like the team is never out of it. I can’t say that’s something I’ve ever experienced as a Senators fan before. Ottawa has rarely been the plucky, never-say-die, grinder team. Over the past 10 years, they've usually been the highly skilled team that loses in the playoffs to the plucky, never-say-die, grinder team.
If Ottawa does make the playoffs, anything can happen. Don Cherry is fond of showing highlight packages of hard-working 3rd and 4th liners and saying, "All you kids out there, you watch these guys 'cause you win cups with guys like these!" Ottawa has players like that in spades. Guys who play the full 200 feet, and contribute at both ends. Ottawa won't win the Cup this year, but at least we know it won't be because they got outworked.
There’s still half the season left, but it's been a highly enjoyable ride so far. The Senators have a very hard January coming up, and maybe the wheels will fall off. Maybe the secondary scoring will dry up. Maybe the goaltending will stop doing enough to win games. But dammit, at least we know the players will continue to give a crap (Z. Smith’s personal mantra aside) and if they go down, they’ll go down fighting, and they’ll be damn entertaining while they do it.
Isn’t that really all a fan can ask for, anyway?
Bonus Thought: Think about this: Alfie is 39. When you look at his stats, that is mind blowing. Consider the list of players who were putting up big numbers at 39. Brett Hull put up 68 points in 81 games at 39. Mark Messier put up 67 points in 82 games. Alfie is on pace for 62 points in 70 games, which would put him on par with Joe Nieuwendyk’s season when he was 39. Jagr is 39 and currently sitting on 31 points in 33 games. Ray Whitney is 39 and has 35 points in 41 games. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing separating Nieuwendyk and Whitney from Alfie are some NHL seasons at the beginning of their careers and some rings. You can’t tell me that Alfie won’t belong in the Hall of Fame when he retires, you just can’t.
Bonus Bonus Thought:: In the (still unlikely) event that the Senators make the playoffs, The Paulrus is instantly granted Coach of the Year honours, no?