Just like last year, it's February and the Senators find themselves out of a playoff spot with little hope. Last year they ended up getting in an enormous hole that no team had over come out of---a 14 point deficit behind the 2nd wildcard team. No person in their right mind thought Ottawa had a chance at that point last year, but they did it. Coming into this season, the narrative was that the Senators needed to get off to a good start so they didn't have to rely on a late push in the year to squeak in the playoffs.
To their credit, Ottawa was doing quite well in the beginning, at least in terms of points. They had a 12-5-5 record in late November, and the thought was that their poor underlying numbers were bound to shoot up at some point. However, that hasn't been the case and now they sit 13th in the conference with a 23-22-6 record.
With each passing day, it is less and less likely that Ottawa will make the playoffs. Here are four reasons why it most likely won't happen:
Points Back Of Other Teams
They are currently five points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who also happen to have two games in hand. The Boston Bruins are ahead of them with 58 points (so six up on Ottawa) and they also have one game in hand. Essentially in the worst case scenario, they could be eight points out of a playoff spot without having the ROW tiebreaker.
Even with the other teams in the Atlantic like Detroit and Tampa Bay, it would be very hard for Ottawa to catch them. They both sit at 58 points as well, with two games in hand. But even if everything breaks well for the Senators and they are five points back of the Penguins and six within the Bruins, Red Wings, and Lightning, that doesn't mean they have a great chance of making the playoffs.
Ottawa isn't the only team that is trying to catch these teams, as the Canadiens, Flyers, Hurricanes, and Devils are all ahead of the Senators in the wildcard race. If they want to catch up to one of the Penguins, Bruins, Lightning, or Red Wings, they'll have to hope that one of the four teams ahead of them don't also go on a hot streak. Take a look for yourself if you need to visualize it:
Ottawa was also extremely lucky last year in that the Bruins and Penguins went through some tough stretches, so it's not as if it will be completely up to them. They'll have to scoreboard watch for five or six other teams as well.
Slim Chances Mathematically
It's not just that it seems like Ottawa has a tough road ahead, the math supports that opinion. In today's NHL, there is tons of parity, and five points back may not seem like much. But in reality, it's a massive gap, and our friend Micah Blake McCurdy's projection system says that the Senators have a slim 7% chance of making the playoffs (as of yesterday):
So, I guess you could say things aren't looking good. In reality, their playoff chances have been hovering between 7-20% for the past couple weeks. Even Sports Club Stats, which is typically more optimistic (and not as predictive) has Ottawa's chances at 9.25%, which is a season low.
Not Winning The Possession Battle
Along with the steep hill to climb and the teams in front of them, Ottawa does not predict as a team that will play better down the stretch. They are still suffering from a terrible shot differential problem, as the defense consistently gives up too many chances.
Expecting the Senators to take a sudden upward turn in the standings would be a tad foolish from an analytical standpoint, as there is nothing to show that they are a good team this year (despite having some great players). However, if you're still holding out hope, we did see the team last year outshoot their opponents on a nightly basis for the last few months, so there's at least a chance that their possession numbers will look marginally better.
The Record They Need Down The Stretch
As it stands, they are on pace for 84 points, which is 15 points fewer than last year. The Bruins and Penguins are on pace to reach 95 points, so the gap in the end could be quite big. Let's assume that Ottawa will need 96 points then, which is similar to last year. What will their record have to be?
In the last 31 games, they need 43 points, which could be a record of say 20-8-3, or 19-8-5. Much like what we were saying at this point last year, it is hard to see them go on a long stretch like that when they can't even string together a three game win streak. Obviously the team proved us wrong last year, but we can't expect that to happen again.
Even if Ottawa does go 20-8-3 and gets to 96 points, who's to say another team ahead of them plays just as good? The Canadiens have been dreadful for the past few months, but if they get Carey Price back, they could go on a run. The Hurricanes are playing sneakily good hockey, and if they can get an ounce of goaltending they have a shot. And the Devils and Flyers have obvious warts, but they have more points than the Senators right now and don't need as good of a record the rest of the way to make it in.
Furthermore, Micah's projection system doesn't see Ottawa as a team that can improve the rest of the season, as he has them pegged at 84.4 points with the playoff cutoff being 92.8. The math doesn't lie sometimes.
In the end, there are too many things going against the Senators right now for me to be positive about their playoff hopes. Would I take another magical run into the playoffs? I guess so, but the biggest thing for me is I need to see change in the summer with this roster. The stretch run was fantastic, but a first round exit is no longer good enough and the franchise needs to get out of mediocrity.
The good news is that if Ottawa keeps this up, they can get a quality impact player in the 6-10 range in the draft, and they will certainly have some resources to be good next season. Just don't hold your breath about this year, because the dream may be over. All I'm saying is, don't get too worked up about losses from now on, because chances are it won't matter much for this season.