It feels a little surreal to writing about the Eastern Conference in today’s NHL analysis, particularly focusing on Ottawa. The Senators were scheduled to play in Boston last night before that game was canceled after the bomb explosions at the Marathon. So as we talk sports here in this space today, let the good people of Boston and all connected with the Marathon, know that the Notebook is with them.
Today we’re going to take a look at Ottawa, who seem to have their playoff berth reasonably in hand with 11 days to go in the regular season. We’ll also check in on Winnipeg, who is chasing either the 8-seed and final playoff berth, or the title in the weak Southeast Division, which would be default move them up to the 3-spot.
If you followed last year’s NHL playoffs, you might recall that Phoenix goalie Mike Smith basically put a lousy team on his shoulders and carried them to the conference finals. Ottawa has to hope for that same formula to work this time around. Goaltender Craig Anderson is having a fantastic year—he’s stopping 94.9% of the shots fired at him, the best percentage in the NHL. The problem is that he’s all the Senators have.
It’s a good thing Anderson stops shots at such a high percentage, because opponents get plenty of scoring opportunities. Ottawa is one of the worst in the league at limiting the exposure of their goalie. Offensively, it’s the reverse. They are getting a lot of shots—second-most in the NHL—but are a bad offensive team, ranking 24th in goals scored. With center Jason Spezza likely lost for the year with a back problem, there’s really no one who can take those scoring opportunities and really do anything with them. Ottawa’s two top scorers—center Cory Conachere and forward Daniel Alfredsson are mediocre and would be role players on an offensive team that was even average.
Nor are the Senators much better on the power play, where they’re a bit below the league average when they have a man advantage. The presence of Anderson makes their penalty kill unit strong. And given the dominance NHL goalies can have in the playoffs, Anderson’s mere presence is enough to make Ottawa respected in any playoff matchup. But don’t be fooled—they are a one-man show.
Ottawa currently holds the 6-seed and if that holds up, they’ll play the #3 team, which in the NHL format is the weakest of the three division winners. That will, without question, be the Southeast champ – Washington – but it could be Winnipeg before it’s over. The Jets are four points back of the Capitals, and they’re just two points back of the New York Rangers to slide into the eight-seed. However, it should be noted here that the Rangers have played one fewer game, giving them an additional opportunity for points down the stretch.
If goaltending defines NHL playoff success then Winnipeg’s postseason chances are finished before they start. Ondrej Pavalec has the worst save percentage of any starting NHL goalie, and the defense in front of him is mediocre at best. It’s not a bad collection of offensive talent—Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler are pretty good scorers, Dustin Byfuglien can move the puck, and Andrew Ladd is a good all-around player. But the whole is not greater, or even equal to the sum of the parts, as the team ranks a bit below the league average at both getting shots and converting them.
Nor does the power play offer Winnipeg any hope. In fact, whether it’s playing with the man advantage, or being on the penalty kill unit, the Jets rank in the bottom part of the NHL. They’re close enough to both Washington and the New York Rangers that we can’t dismiss their chances of getting in, but let’s be frank—the playoffs would be more interesting if the Jets stayed home.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Pittsburgh continues to hold steady for the #1 seed. Ottawa has three teams in front of them in the Northeast Division—Montreal, Boston and Toronto, separated by four points and jousting for the 2,4,5 spots in the bracket. The New York teams that we looked at last week—the Islanders and Rangers—continue to hold down the final two positions. New Jersey, part of last week’s feature, continues to lag and the odds of them making the postseason grow increasingly long.