It all started in Detroit. I want you to think way back, to November 24th. The Senators were playing the Red Wings in Detroit. Going into the game, Ottawa sat two points behind the Maple Leafs for the final wild card spot, but with two games in hand. The final score in that Detroit game would flatter Ottawa, as they only lost 4-3 but were outshot 43-26. That was followed up by a gutsy come-from-behind shootout win over the Blues, and then losses to the Panthers, Lightning, Islanders (x2), and Penguins. By the time the Sens won again, 4-3 in overtime over the Canucks, the Sens were six points out of the playoffs and Paul MacLean had coached his last game for the team.
That game against Detroit was the first sign to me that this team couldn't hang with the big boys in the league. They'd had some hot goaltending to start the season, but the season was effectively over.
Then last week, something strange happened. The Sens beat the Sharks to cap off a 17-2-2 run, pushing them into the final wild card spot. It was unexpected to say the least. We watched the Sens' playoff chances jump from 4% at the start of February to over 70% by mid-March. It was amazing.
The past three games have been disappointing. The Sens went 0-2-1, against (in order): a top-tier team, a basement dweller, and a playoff bubble rival. Suddenly, the Bruins managed to claw back to being the playoff favourites. But that's far from being a guarantee. Ottawa is still only 3 points behind them with a game in hand. One game at a time, the Sens can crawl their way back into the playoff picture. They get their first chance to do that tonight.
And seeing how the unravelling started, I think it's only fitting they get their first crack at it in Detroit.
Tonight's Sens game
Ottawa Senators at Detroit Red Wings: This looks to be quite the showdown. Ottawa is on a mini-skid, but Detroit's been on more of a maxi-skid, losing five of their last seven, and are 3-6-1 in their last 10. Jimmy Howard may have been ousted by Petr Mrazek, except then Mrazek had a putrid effort against the Isles on the weekend. The Sens have confirmed Zack Smith and Patrick Wiercioch back in the lineup, but the starting goalie was kept a mystery a day before the game. Come what may, this promises to be an entertaining matchup.
Tonight's other games that matter
Boston Bruins at Florida Panthers: This is another big game. A win for the Bruins makes them that much harder to reach. A win for the Panthers puts them ahead of Ottawa (if Ottawa loses in regulation), though Ottawa maintains their game in hand. Even if the Panthers are scary, the Bruins are scarier. If you keep you eye on one out-of-town scoreboard, make it this one.
Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes: The Caps are six points ahead of the Sens, though the Sens still have a game in hand. (Seriously, does Ottawa have a game in hand on everybody?) Catching them seems unlikely, but it will seem less unlikely if the 'Canes can do their part.