On Friday, we Think Thoughts around here. In the play-offs that’s no different. So come friends, join me and let us Think Thoughts together:
On the Role of the Underdog
It’s a well-worn tactic for coaches to pitch their team as the underdogs. The next bench boss who pronounces his team the clear favourites at the outset of a series will be the first. In some ways, the Sens have cause to think the world is against them: most analytics models have not looked kindly on the squad, and the national media haven’t exactly fawned over their play. Nonetheless, Guy Boucher took the tactic to the next level on Wednesday with the following:
Coach Guy Boucher, doing the best job he can to get his team ready for the huge challenge the Senators face, took it a step further than MacArthur. Asked what he was expecting from the Rangers, Boucher went in another direction and rhymed off the Vegas odds — which are stacked against Ottawa.
“From what I hear from everybody we don’t seem to have much of a chance,” Boucher said. “The odds are 10/1 in Vegas against us. Everybody seems to think they’re going to roll all over us so I guess they’re a pretty good team.
Boucher’s got his number a bit crossed here: Vegas had the Sens at 10/1 to win the Stanley Cup, not their second round match-up with the Rangers. When you actually break it down, as one of the 8 teams left we’d expect them to have something like a 12.5% chance to win it all. A 10% chance isn’t such a big disrespect then, after all (especially considering they’d face one of Pittsburgh or Washington in the next round should they advance). The media and many analysts were down on the team’s prospects at various points in the season because this team really wasn’t that good. There was a stretch when Chris DiDomenico was prominently involved. The Ottawa Senators on April 28th are barely recognizable from the squad that slogged through mid-December games; it’s not just that they are playing better as a unit, they literally have better players. Tommy Wingels, Viktor Stalberg, Alexandre Burrows, Clarke MacArthur are four players that were not on the roster in January. It’s just a different, better squad.
The Sens out-played the Bruins in their opening round series, and were the better of the two teams last night against the Rangers. These aren’t the mid-season Sens — that team would have been real underdogs. This team is #actuallygood.
Sens’ Forward Depth
As I alluded to above, one of the main reasons that the Sens have been able to reach another level in the play-offs has been their new found depth up front. Boucher has often spoken of his desire to roll four lines, but for much of the regular season that was simply a pipe dream. It wasn’t uncommon to see Chris Neil or Chris Kelly only playing 5-6 minutes a night. Now look at the 5v5 ice-time from last night’s game: no forward played more than Kyle Turris’ 15:36 and no one logged fewer minutes than Clarke MacArthur’s 10:36. Coaches often say one thing and do another, particularly when it comes to things like rolling lines. In-game ice time, however, doesn’t lie. Guy Boucher really does trust all four lines now.
Zack Smith on the Penalty Kill
When the Sens brought Chris Kelly back at the start of the year, one of the rationales for the decision was that he could help the team’s abysmal penalty kill. As the season progressed, it unfortunately became clear that Kelly would not be able to hold his own at 5v5. This left Boucher in a tough spot: he was leaning heavily on Kelly on the PK, but he couldn’t trust a fourth line that featured the veteran at centre to play more than a handful of minutes. Enter Zack Smith, who by virtue of picking up the slack for Kelly has enabled the Sens coaching staff to deploy their twelve best skaters for 5v5 action. Smith has been a revelation short-handed, especially this post-season. He’s always been a good skater, but I’ve been particularly impressed with his anticipation and his willingness to attack an opposing team’s defense if he gains control of the puck. His partnership with Stalberg, in particular, has led to several odd-man rushes while short-handed and has kept the puck out of the Ottawa net.
While we’re on the topic of stellar performances from the forward corps, Ryan Dzingel had one of the best games of his NHL career last night. I’ve been a fan of Dzingel’s since his recall last year, but even I wasn’t expecting him to have such a big scoring impact in his first real season in the pros. It was a bit disappointing, then, to see him go through a prolonged scoring slump towards the end of the regular season. At one point, Boucher even made him a healthy scratch in the first round against Boston. Since his return, however, he’s been absolutely dynamite. When the S7S writers were asked who was most likely to break out of their slump in the near future, I chose Dzingel. Why? Because he gets so many damn chances. You don’t have to just take my word for it because the numbers bear it out, too: no Senator got scoring chances at a higher rate at 5v5 than Dzingel (per corsica.hockey) this season. Not Mark Stone, not Mike Hoffman, not anyone.
It can be frustrating at times when a player gets as many chances as Dzingel does if he’s not scoring them all. In those moments, it’s important to remember that getting bunches of chances and not scoring them is better than not getting those chances at all. Besides, this isn’t Curtis Lazar we’re talking about here. Not every NHL skater can bury one top shelf on Henrik Lundqvist off a toe drag like Dzingel did last night. Don’t be surprised if the kid gets a few bounces and we’re suddenly talking about 3 goals in 3 games.
Speaking of Lundqvist, my last thought is dedicated to worrying a bit about The King. This isn’t to belittle the Rangers’ skaters, especially their formidable forward group, but their clearest path to victory is through Hank stealing a couple of games. The Sens managed to sneak two in on Friday but there were a few times in the first period when it felt like nothing was ever making its way over the Rangers’ goal line. He had his struggles during the regular season, but Lundqvist’s found his game in these play-offs and that’s easily the biggest hurdle facing the Sens. There’s no simple answer to scoring on Lundqvist, but getting 40+ shots a night would sure go a long way.