The stretch run: Ottawa's biggest remaining questions

When the Ottawa Senators' season resumes tomorrow, there will be just nineteen games remaining in their schedule. This, folks, is the epitome of a stretch run -- how the Senators perform in these final games will have an impact that cannot be exaggerated.

Though the team is sitting in third place of the Eastern Conference and first within their division, it took the setting of several team records to get them there -- and that hold is tenuous with a one-point lead over the Buffalo Sabres, who have three games in hand. This Senators team will probably make the playoffs, but beyond that, we cannot speculate. Here's what we do know: There are questions surrounding this team, as there are with all 29 others. Here are some key questions that have to be answered over the next month for the team.

Will the team make another trade?

This question might be answered by the time you read this. Rumors abound that Matt Cullen's teammate, Aaron Ward, is next on GM Bryan Murray's list, but these are just rumors; nothing that one could call credible has been put out there.

Everyone seems to believe that the Senators are not done tweaking their roster. Our esteemed PeterR has an outstanding list of what players the team may be targeting. They have a glut of depth at forward, while they are dangerously thin on defense. Chris Campoli's knee injury means the team is relying on Brian Lee as their sixth defenseman. So far in his NHL career, Lee has been serviceable on his best nights and utterly ineffective on his worst. Murray continues to state that Lee is in the team's long-term plans; many (including myself) doubt this. An injury to any of the five remaining blueliners means the team has to call up Derek Smith, who seemed a little overwhelmed in his first two NHL games before the break. The stretch run is not where you want to have a rookie learning the ropes, and the team already has one player doing so in Erik Karlsson.

That being said, Murray does not have to make a move.  The team has shown tremendous chemistry this year, especially in winning 14 of their last 16 games.  The GM may not want to tinker with a successful formula.  In addition, the team has very little room to maneuver under the salary cap.  If partners have too high an asking price, or the Senators have to move too much salary in return, they may decide to stand pat instead.

(coming up: the oldest question in Ottawa, road woes, and more...)

Who is the starting goaltender?

While Cory Clouston is blunt in his assessment of his players, he is equally enigmatic when it comes to his plans for them. While it was extremely telling that Brian Elliott started the game against the Islanders after playing the Red Wings the night before, Clouston has given no verbal indication of what his plans for his netminders are. Thus, we are forced to speculate.

Clouston has said all the right things, giving us such gems as "They both have to be ready" and "We'll take it game by game," which sounds a lot like former coach Craig Hartsburg last year refusing to admit Elliott had outplayed Martin Gerber. However media-driven the designation of a starter is, the fact remains that a team plays better with a steady influence behind them. Teams play better (i.e. more comfortably) when they know and trust their goalie, and just like any other chemistry, that comes from ice time together. They may say they believe both guys give them a chance to win, but they play with more confidence in front of one. Right now, that person is Brian Elliott, so expect to see him get the bulk of the starts, and be in goal when the playoffs start.

How far will Brian Elliott take this team in the playoffs?

And right now, this is a question no one can answer.  It will be fun to find out!

How will the Olympics affect the players who attended them?

Daniel Alfredsson, in particular, is someone who needs fresh legs to be at his best. Of course, it cannot be understated how much the captain means to this team: When he is at his best, they are at their best. But how much gas left in the tank does Alfie have? It took an injured shoulder to get him the rest he needed to recharge his batteries; will they need recharging again? Don't be surprised if he starts to miss practices again as the season winds down. No player has benefited as much from the team being able to roll four lines effectively as Alfredsson, but Clouston may find a way to get him more rest as it becomes necessary.

In addition, both winger Milan Michalek and defenseman Filip Kuba were told to skip practice yesterday to rest bumps and bruises. This comes after the entire team was given Saturday off, and is at least worth a mention. Michalek battled hard in the Olympics and has slowed considerably since his scorching start as the grind of the season appeared to catch up with him. His health is critical to this team since it means the difference between a four line and three line night. Meanwhile, Filip Kuba simply cannot afford any injuries. His game is inconsistent enough as it is, and if injuries affect his ability to pass or play the body (ok, that was a joke), he will become a true liability on the ice. That would result in a catastrophic domino effect on his normal partner, Erik Karlsson, and whoever Matt Carkner's partner winds up being.

Can Erik Karlsson hold up?

Karlsson's roller coaster year hit another dip when he injured his shoulder before the Olympic break.  Though few would have believed it at the start of the year, his presence has been noticeably missed.  Karlsson's offensive skills cannot be replaced, and his positional play in his own zone is slowly blossoming from sound to strong -- he plays angles instead of bodies to his advantage.

Of course, this is because he is undersized.  Karlsson will never be a big guy, but his size is going to become a factor as the games become more physical.  Players are going to be targeting him, especially with a sore shoulder.  His playoff initiation is looming and he is a player this team needs in its lineup to beat the top seeds in the East.

Can this team win the Northeast Division?

As mentioned earlier, the division is anything but locked up right now. Though the Sabres have three games in hand, they also have two more games against the Senators. They will also be asking the same Olympic wear and tear question about their goalie, Ryan Miller.

While Senators' opponents during these remaining games are favorable, the schedule is not.  The team plays essentailly every other day from this point on, and only seven of those games are at home.  The remaining twelve are on the road.

This matters because the team is just 13-15-1 on the road this year, with seven of those wins coming in the last 16 games.  That's right, before January 14th, the team had won just SIX road games all year, and the remainder of their season comes on the road.  On the other hand, they have only lost eight games at home all year.  Winning the division is more than just a matter of pride for this team.  Home ice advantage will be a big factor for this team if they can manage to pull it off.  The schedule hasn't done them any favors in forcing them to essentially win it on the road.

The good news is that they've put themselves in a position to win, and there's no reason to believe they can't.  If the team can turn their road fortunes around, it will be quite the promising omen for the playoffs.  If they can't, they might very well be exposed as pretenders in short order.

So, there you have it.  There's plenty to watch for in these upcoming games.  What will you be on the lookout for in the days ahead?

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