First off, my apologies for missing our traditional Five Thoughts for Friday time-slot and ruining everyone's favourite alliteration. Call it delirium from the win against the Kings, call it fatigue from back-to-back games that started at 10:30 PM ET, but that 7 am ET slot unfortunately came and went before I knew it. So, sorry for making y'all wait. Nonetheless, it's been an exciting week as a Sens fan so we've got lots to cover. Let's get to it!
There's just no way this should be happening, let's just get that out of the way off the top. In the long run, there's no virtually no way it's going to continue to play out this way either. But damn has it been fun. For anyone that's been living under a rock for the last week, the stellar play of AHL journeyman Andrew "the Hamburgler" Hammond has been the definitive story of the team, and maybe the entire NHL. Since stepping into the starter's role to replace the injured Robin Lehner, the Senators have won all four of Hammond's starts and he's posted a sparkling .962 SV%. His virtuoso performance against the Kings on Thursday was truly the cherry on the top of a remarkable run. It's also worth noting how unlikely that performance was: Hammond was facing down a dominant Kings team in the midst of an eight game win streak on the second night of a back-to-back. This was the "schedule loss" to end all schedule losses, but thanks largely to Hammond's performance the team squeezed out a 1-0 victory. I'm a realist: 27 year-olds posting a sub .900 SV% in the AHL just don't turn out to be serviceable NHL goalies, but for now that doesn't matter. This has been ridiculously fun -- I'm just going to enjoy the unlikeliest of rides.
Speaking of unlikely rides:
The success of the Wiercioch-Ceci pairing
It wasn't that long ago that the Sens' defense appeared to be nearly un-salvageable beyond the top pairing. Cody Ceci was going through some sophomore struggles, Jared Cowen wasn't progressing, and Chris Phillips was rapidly mummifying, among other problems. However, over the course of the last several games the much-maligned Patrick Wiercioch has picked up the baton and helped to solidify the second pairing with Cody Ceci. This is a surprising development for many reasons, not least of which the fact that Wiercioch is even still with the Senators. If many fans, and perhaps some media members, had their druthers he'd have been traded long ago. It's been a small sample size, and the team as a whole has been playing better of late so I'm hesitant to heap too much praise on this one pair of player, but I don't think even the biggest skeptics could deny that this has been Ottawa's best second pairing all year. Wiercioch and Ceci both bring tremendous offensive skill, and have been able to use each other to keep the puck out of their end more often that not. With Jared Cowen still suspended, the duo will get another kick at the can tonight against San Jose; if they play well again and the Sens win, it'll be awfully hard for Dave Cameron to justify breaking them up going forward.
Everyone loves Erik
Much like his fancy stat brethren Patrick Wiercioch, Erik Condra is a player about whom attitudes have shifted of late. Under Dave Cameron, Condra has been much more heavily relied up on than under Paul MacLean. His partnership with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Curtis Lazar has given the Sens their first consistently positive bottom six line. In his new role, he played the second most minutes of any forward against the Kings. I don't expect that to continue, but it finally seems that with all this exposure Sens fans are starting to catching on to what makes Condra a valuable player. For a guy who's said he wants to be around the team going forward, and will almost certainly re-sign on the cheap if asked to do so, it's been nice to see a bit of recognition from a fanbase that's at times been a bit tepid in their appreciation.
Which brings us to an issue specific to that other Erik:
Zone Entries on the Power Play
Ottawa's power play has been at best hit or miss this season, and part of the problem can be tied to the Sens' inability to gain the offensive zone with control. Jamie McLennan astutely observed as much in the game against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night. The root of the problem is twofold, the second issue being a by-product of the first: 1) the Sens power play is too dependent on Erik Karlsson. This allows teams to focus their attention and defensive scheming largely on him and 2) the set-up "plays" the team uses to try to gain the zone are far too simplistic. Not to be too rudimentary about it, but all too often it seems like the Sens' default option is: "Let Karlsson go get the puck and make something happen!". A common sight for Sens fans this year:
In the above, you can see Karlsson carrying the puck up with the other four Senators flat across the width of the ice. Teams that have done their job scouting shade Karlsson to his backhand; that is to say they load up on his forehand side and essentially concede the backhand cross-ice pass if Karlsson dares to attempt it. It's a tricky pass and it's one from which the penalty killers are well-suited to recover in time to eliminate any imminent threat. If that doesn't work, Karlsson sometimes tries to jam it up the middle himself. But...that's about it. And that's the problem: right now there just isn't much by the way of action beyond Karlsson carrying it up and trying to feather a pass to the winger breaking wide up the right wing. Once the Sens gain the zone, the power play moves the puck well by my eye -- it's just getting there that's the hard part, and the team could benefit from a secondary puck carrier to lessen the burden on Karlsson and open up the playbook a bit.
When Do You Believe?
The last thought for today is more of a question that anything else: when are you ready to let yourself believe? It's been a rough season, and even after this run the Sens are still less than a 1-in-5 shot of making the play-offs by virtually every predictive model. But after last night, I imagine some of us are starting to let our guard down a bit; letting ourselves believe again.
So I'll leave with this question: are you ready to believe yet?