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Is it Realistic? Analyzing the Ottawa Senators Playoff Chances

What will Ottawa have to do the rest of the way if they want a shot at making the playoffs?

NHL: JAN 03 Blue Jackets at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On November 23rd, 2022, the Ottawa Senators lost 5-1 to the Vegas Golden Knights and fell to a paltry 6-12-1 on the season. It was somehow another low on the season just shortly after losing seven in a row. They were already ten points out of a playoff spot and it seemed like the playoffs were out of the question incredibly early on in the season for a third straight year. As we sit here a month and a half later, it’s not as if Senators are a good bet to make the playoffs. However, they’ve at least re-entered the conversation.

Since that dreadful start, they’ve gone 12-5-2, which is a 103-point pace. It’s not as if we can just throw out those first 19 games (exactly half overall), but it is incredibly encouraging that they’ve been able to turn things around without extreme amounts of luck as they’ve done in some years past. It’s not as if the first 19 games were that different from the latter 19, which is actually a good sign considering their positive shot metrics:

First 19 Games, Next 19 Games

Stat First 19 Last 19
Stat First 19 Last 19
5v5 GF% 48.68% 38.98%
5v5 CF% 52.47% 50.87%
5v5 xGF% 52.40% 51.13%
Overall SH% 9.19% 9%
Overall SV% 0.895 0.917
PP G/60 7.95 12.86
PK GA/60 7.96 4.14

What’s really interesting is that their 5v5 goal numbers have never come near the 50% mark despite consistently having above-average corsi and expected goals. Their 5v5 goal share has actually tanked over these past 19 games (despite stagnant expected goals), but what has been the clear difference-maker is their special teams and goaltending.

The powerplay sits 4th overall in the league and their penalty kill is 8th, which is almost unprecedented for a Senators team. Anton Forsberg and Cam Talbot haven’t been perfect, but a combined .917 SV% over these 19 games is fantastic considering the league average is just .905. Those two things have made a massive difference, although it would be unfair to characterize the team’s recent success as unsustainable. Yes, the special teams probably won’t be this exceptional forever, but it’s also unreasonable to expect them to have a 51.79 xGF% and just a 44.44 GF% due to the talent that is on this roster. The fact that they’re back at a 0 goal differential just means that some of their luck is finally evening out.

Their record is 18-17-3, which is 23rd in the league in points percentage. Their goal differential is 19th, and their xGF% is 12th. I think it’s fair to say they’re about an average team that could finish anywhere in the 10th-20th range based on different factors ultimately out of their control. The point is that although the playoffs are still unlikely, they would be a worthy entrant if they play up to their potential like they have been doing.

So what will they have to do to actually get in? Here is what the standings look like this morning:

They sit seven points back of the New York Islanders but they have a game in hand. That is certainly doable, as they’d have to get three more wins than the Islanders the rest of the way. The problem is that the Penguins, Sabres, and Red Wings are also in the way. In fact, the Penguins have a slightly higher points percentage so theoretically, the Senators could be seven points back of Pittsburgh with no games in hand. Leap-frogging four teams is definitely difficult, but not impossible.

The Penguins are on pace for 98 points, which is quite a high threshold for a #8 seed. The Senators would need 60 points over the rest 44 games to best that, which is a 112-point pace. That would mean a record of something like 28-12-4—a tall task indeed. But for the fanbase that has gone through the Hamburglar run with a stretch of 20-3-3 to finish the season, it’s hard to ever think they’re truly out of it—especially with a team that has a core that can compete with many playoff teams.

According to MoneyPuck, the Senators have a 22.6% chance of making the playoffs. 1/5 odds aren’t great, but I’ll take that considering they felt like 0 not long ago. That actually feels optimistic based on how well they’ll have to play the rest of the way, but that just shows that they’re not out of it yet.

Is Ottawa a deserving playoff team? Potentially. They’re right on the verge, and teams in the middle are clustered so tightly that some small luck here or there makes a huge difference. So if they don’t end up making it in, it won’t be some great injustice. However, their record is only now beginning to line up with their play, which is unfortunate due to the incredibly intense competition around them.

After an incredibly frustrating month and a half, this season is still salvageable, which is a win in itself. I wouldn’t count on there being playoff hockey in Ottawa this April, but every game of late has been entertaining and high stakes, and I think that will continue for a while, which is all that fans asked for. The Senators are taking their steps forward, and it’s exciting that they’re making us believe they can do it, even if they ultimately fall short.