I feel like I have to preface this article or else I’ll be accused of jinxing the Senators season: No, Ottawa has not clinched a playoff spot just yet, and there is still a month and a half of hockey to be played before the playoffs start. Having said that, they are in a very good position right now, and unless they completely fall off the map, they should make it in.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume that Ottawa does make the playoffs, as they should. They’re 32-20-6, which is 2nd in the Atlantic, and four points up on the Boston Bruins (with a game in hand) who are 9th in the conference.
Then the question becomes: who would be the ideal opponent in the first round? Teams can’t always get their first pick, especially with the strange divisional format that is now in place. However, that works to Ottawa’s advantage thanks to the weak Atlantic division.
As it stands, there are essentially four realistic opponents, and one that is less likely. Let’s go through all of them in no particular order.
Record vs. Leafs: 3-1-0
The main reason people would want this matchup is due to the excitement surrounding the Battle of Ontario V. The NHL would be thrilled with this series, and the ratings would go through the roof. If Ottawa wins, it would be an incredible series. But if they lose, it would be another disappointing finish against the Leafs in the playoffs.
Overall, Toronto is a fringe playoff team that has the ability to score goals (6th in the league in GF), and their top-six with players like Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner et al. can be scary once they get going.
Frederik Andersen is a wildcard as he seems to be terrible or amazing, and their defense is sub-par.
Toronto does have better possession numbers (50.5% corsi vs. 48.5%), but I think Ottawa would be the slight favourites in the series. The Senators won three out of four in the regular season, although two of them were in extra time, so it would probably be a very tight matchup.
I think Ottawa could finally slay the dragon, but I’m not sure I would be able to handle twitter while the games are on. Unless of course they win.
Record vs. Panthers: 1-2-0
Coming into the season, I was super high on the Panthers. I thought they could challenge for the division title again due to their shrewd moves in the summer. They have underperformed for months, but are finally beginning to pick it up.
They are probably not as good as I thought they would be, but they are currently in a playoff spot and will at least make it close until the end.
Despite me loving their team coming into the season, the Panthers are who I would most want the Senators to play. Although they have been on a roll recently, they are still only 28-20-10, which is more losses than wins. Roberto Luongo has been average this season with a .915 SV%, so I would not be too worried about their goaltending.
Sometimes it is worse playing a team that is hot going into the playoffs, but I just don’t feel threatened by Florida. They might not be as good as I thought they could be.
Record vs. Rangers: 1-1-0
In order to play the Rangers, Ottawa would have to win the division, as New York is almost assuredly going to be the first wild card team. I’m not sure where I sit with the Rangers, because there are lots of pros and cons for playing against them.
First of all, there’s Henrik Lundqvist. While he only has a .912 SV%, you cannot count him out for stealing an entire series. Furthermore, their forwards are incredibly deep with four lines that can score. Here are their most recent lines:
Their defense on the other hand, is not very good. They are top-10 in goals against, but that is not because of their defensemen. Guys like Dan Girardi and Marc Staal can be exposed in their top two pairings, while Ryan McDonagh is their only very good defenseman.
The Rangers are actually the only team in this group that is a worse possession team than Ottawa at 47.6%, so perhaps New York is due for some regression as well.
Record vs. Bruins: 1-0-0
I have no idea what to think of the Bruins. They have lead the league in corsi for most of the year at 55.4%, yet their roster (especially their depth) is not amazing. I think a large reason why they were successful in getting more shot attempts was due to Claude Julien’s coaching. I doubt new coach Bruce Cassidy will be able to get as much out of the Bruins as Julien did, so that is good news for the Senators.
At the same time, Boston was incredibly unlucky with the league's second-worst shooting percentage and fourth-worst save percentage. You would think that those would rise at some point, and the fact that they have won four straight is a good sign for them.
I am not as scared of the Bruins as I was in years past, but it would not be a cake walk for Ottawa if they played each other. If anything, I think this would be the closest matchup.
Record vs. Canadiens: 2-0-0
In order to play Montreal in the first round, both the Canadiens and Senators would have to get passed by one of the Bruins, Panthers, or Leafs, so this matchup is unlikely. However, it could still happen in the second round.
After beginning the year 13-1-1, the Canadiens have gone 19-19-7. We cannot just throw out the first 15 games of the year, but it’s clear that Montreal has not been great for a while.
The thing is, Montreal could still be a fierce opponent. Carey Price has not been his usual self in the past few months, and his SV% has dropped all the way down to .918. That is still an above-average mark though, and I wouldn’t bet against Price bouncing back just in time.
Besides Price, the Canadiens actually have a decent supporting cast. Forwards Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Radulov and Alex Galchenyuk can keep up with just about anyone, and they are not the paper tiger that they were in years past. While it would be nice to think that the Canadiens are going to fall further and further down the standings, I just can’t see it happening. Montreal is still a good team that would be tough to play against.
At the same time, everyone knows that Ottawa is capable of beating them.
To me, I think it is easy to rank the Canadiens as the hardest matchup, and the Panthers as the easiest. The three teams in the middle are so hard to distinguish though, because they all have similar flaws and strengths. As of right now, I think I would order them from easiest to hardest like this:
Having said that, this could change in a matter of days, or even hours. I will probably edit this list multiple times. The good news is that I wouldn’t feel like Ottawa has no chance against any of these teams. The Canadiens and Rangers are probably slightly better than the Senators right now, but I could certainly see Ottawa winning a series against either of them.
I’m curious to see what you guys think about these opponents. Let’s get some discussion in the comments.
Which team do you want Ottawa to play in the first round?