The Ottawa Senators improbable journey to the playoffs

The Ottawa Senators have had the greatest turnaround in NHL regular season history.

The Senators had a pretty disappointing season last year, finishing five points out of a playoff spot after going on a 5-0-0 run to end the season. Their biggest weakness was their defence, which they left untouched over the summer and traded captain Jason Spezza for Alex Chiasson and futures. Nevertheless, before the season started I thought they would make the playoffs because almost every fan in every sport is blindly optimistic at the start of the season.

Things started well in terms of wins, winning four of their first five games despite being outshot in every game and by an average of 7.6 per game. That would eventually catch up with Ottawa and they would lose 15 of their next 21 games to drop to 10-11-5. In the 27th game, Ottawa came back from 3-0 down to win 4-3 in overtime against the Vancouver Canucks, but it would prove to be Paul MacLean's final game. With three days off until the next game, Dave Cameron took over an 11-11-5 team that was four points behind the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot on the morning of his first game against Los Angeles on 10 December. Ottawa was 21st in the league with 27 points and 23rd in the league with a score-adjusted Corsi of 47.5%.

Ottawa would play better with Dave Cameron, partly due to Cameron's making Erik Condra a regular, reducing the ice time of Chris Phillips and partly due to injuries to players like Chris Neil and Zack Smith. Their better play wouldn't result in wins and they would continue to meander along the season, slowly drifting further and further from a playoff spot. Phillips broke Daniel Alfredsson's club record for games played in a 2-1 loss to Washington on 5 February. That was the last time Phillips played for Ottawa. Two days later, the Senators dropped a 4-1 decision to Lumbus. Before their next game against Buffalo, these were the NHL standings with Ottawa 14 points behind Boston and 19 points behind Pittsburgh, growing to 20 a few days later. On 16 February, Ottawa already without injured goaltender Craig Anderson lost Robin Lehner to a concussion late in the second period of a 6-3 loss to Carolina. In came 27-year old Andrew Hammond. Hammond's only previous NHL experience was 11 saves on 11 shots in 35 minutes in 2013-2014. In 73 career AHL games, Hammond had a save percentage of 90.5%. He would go on to allow two goals on five shots in that loss to Carolina. Ottawa was playing well with a score-adjusted Corsi of 52.7% since Cameron had come on (ninth best in the NHL), but with a record of only 11-12-5 and now down to their third string goaltender. The gap to Boston had shrunk slightly to 10 points.

Hammond stopped 42 out of 44 shots in a 4-2 win over Montreal in his first start and then 21 out of 22 in another win in his second start. His next two starts were shutout wins against Anaheim and Los Angeles on back-to-back nights. Hammond's legend continued to grow and a 3-2 win over Buffalo on 6 March had the Senators on a 7-0-1 run, within three points of Boston for the final wild card position and with two games remaining against the Bruins.

Although Hammond had brought them this far, Anderson was healthy now and started the next game. The Senators blew a 4-0 lead in the third period against Calgary but pulled out a win in the shootout. Anderson stayed in net for the following game, against the Boston Bruins. Ottawa would lose this game 3-1 and fall seven points behind the Bruins with 17 games remaining for Ottawa and 16 for Boston. The Penguins were still 15 points ahead of Ottawa. This was 11 March.

Dave Cameron went back to Hammond, who had still not given up more than two goals in a game. The Senators won the next three games with Hammond equalling an NHL record by giving up two goals or less in 12 consecutive starts at the beginning of a career. With a chance to break the record, the next game was against the Boston Bruins. The Senators were now four points behind Boston and had a game in hand. Hammond couldn't break the record but Ottawa did win 6-4 and won another two games to extend their winning streak to seven and finally move into a playoff spot. Hammond's record was an absurd 14-0-1, the Senators were a point clear of the Bruins and held a game in hand. Ottawa had 10 games left and the Bruins had nine. In the following game, the Senators got routed at home by the Rangers for Hammond's first ever regulation loss but the Bruins lost in overtime to the Lightning. The two teams were now level on points but Ottawa had nine games left, the Bruins had eight left and lost six in a row (0-3-3).

Having made up so much ground in such a short period of time, Ottawa now had to hold on for the final two weeks. Anderson returned to the net, and Ottawa blew a 3-1 third period lead to the lowly Maple Leafs, eventually losing 4-3 in overtime. The next day, Cameron scratched Patrick Wiercioch for the first time in weeks and the Senators lost 4-2 at home to the Panthers.

Ottawa now had seven games left, was three points behind Boston with a game in hand. The Washington Capitals had quietly been pulled back as well, sitting six points ahead of Ottawa with the Senators holding a game in hand there as well. As recently as last week, before Ottawa's game against Detroit on 31 March, the Penguins were nine points ahead of Ottawa.

The Senators had had a crazy run to get to this point, but the sequence of events from here on were even more ridiculous. Despite holding a 25-9 edge in shots on goal, the Senators trailed 1-0 in Detroit after two periods. The score stayed the same until Clarke MacArthur tied it with 4:02 left and Ottawa eventually won in a shootout. Ottawa followed that with a 2-1 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 4-3 overtime win over the Washington Capitals that was necessitated after blowing a 3-0 lead. A 3-2 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs followed, a second loss to the Leafs in eight days. With six days remaining the season, Ottawa had 93 points while Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh all had 95 points but the Senators would lose the tiebreaker to every team. The Senators had made up seven points on Pittsburgh in six days.

On 7 April, the Penguins came to Ottawa. With a win, the Senators would move level on points with Pittsburgh. Within 10 seconds the Penguins were up 1-0 and within 15 minutes it was 3-0. Jean-Gabriel Pageau got one back late in the second period and Mark Stone made it a one-goal game early in the third, but the Senators still needed another goal. There were less than two minutes left and a regulation Pittsburgh win would insure that Ottawa finished behind Pittsburgh. But they couldn't hang on. Mike Hoffman tied it and Mark Stone won it in overtime. The next night the Bruins saw their five game winning streak end in a 3-0 loss to the Capitals. Ottawa was tied with Boston, a point behind Pittsburgh and two behind Detroit. They still needed help. They got it from the Panthers and coupled with Ottawa's 3-0 win over the Rangers, the Senators had regained control of their own fate. All they needed to do was beat Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon and they were going to the playoffs. Beat Philadelpia they did and returned to the playoffs after being 14-points out at one point, the largest deficit ever to be overturned in NHL history.

Could any of this have happened if Mike Hoffman had been claimed on waivers last year? If Chris Neil did not break his hand in a fight? If Jared Cowen did not get suspended opening the door for Patrick Wiercioch? If Clarke MacArthur did not run into Robin Lehner? The sequence of events including injuries, a suspension and come-from-behind victories defy logic. The journey to the playoffs could very well be more enjoyable than the playoffs themselves. Why are the playoffs exciting? Because every single game means so much and every win or loss changes everything. There is a huge amount of pressure in every game. The Senators have almost had to run the table for two months, winning 21 out of 27 games and still barely made it. They haven't lost a road game in regulation in over nine weeks. Even if they get swept and lose every game 5-0, these have easily been the most enjoyable two months of hockey since the spring of 2007.

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