Last night’s loss to Tampa Bay was a gut punch. Ottawa loses a close game, and every team that Ottawa is chasing wins theirs. In one night the Sens’ playoff probability drops from about 25% to 15%. Moreover, the feeling that this team takes one step back for every step forward weighs down the whole #fearless experience. The feeling of futility is settling in. But as is usually the case, the real story of the game lies just below the box score.
Ottawa outshot Tampa 34-22 and dominated possession 5v5 60.3%-39.7%. It was a one goal game right up until the last few minutes, and at one point, with the score tied, Bishop absolutely robbed Bobby Ryan. If he doesn’t maybe the whole narrative changes. A team with excellent goaltending stole a couple of close ones away from the team who should, by all rights, have won.
In fact, if you look at the Senators’ last 10 games—of which they’ve lost seven—they’ve controlled possession in seven of those games. In four of those games—also all losses—they’ve been north of 60% when 5v5, which, in a league this good, you can consider absolute domination in possession terms. In that same time they’ve allowed fewer than 30 shots on net at even strength eight times, and 20 or fewer shots at even strength five times.
The Senators, at even strength, are a good team. Or at least they have been lately. When Patrick Wiercioch said post-game that the team has been “finding ways to lose,” he’s not kidding.
So why are they losing so much? We don’t have to go far to find areas of legitimate concern. Their PK is terrible, currently rated 23rd in the league, and is absolutely giving the game away in places. This couldn’t be worse when you also consider Ottawa leads the league in times shorthanded. Their goaltending could also stand to make one or two more timely saves, which is a kind way of saying that Craig Anderson has been brutal this season. But my key takeaway here is that if this team stays out of the box even a little bit more, some of these losses turn to wins.
RELATED NOTE: Chris Neil’s penalties per 60 minutes of play this season is 2.9, which is 2nd in the league among players with 20 or more games played behind the also-useless Zac Rinaldo. This is almost a career high for Neil. (He took 3.1 penalties
a game per 60 back in 2007-2008.) His penalties drawn? 0.4! That’s a career low.
For an agitator who doesn’t really do much to drive possession or put up points, that’s stunningly ineffective. For a team that is so pressed for cash that in order to call up Mike Hoffman they also need to send down effective fourth liner Derek Grant, Neil’s $1.9MM salary (for two more seasons after this…sigh) is a boat anchor.
I think the book is out on Chris Neil; the refs aren’t biting anymore. More importantly, I don’t know how you scratch young players for not playing responsibly in their own zone, and then not only give Chris Neil a free pass, but also the assistant captaincy. It can’t do much for your credibility.
Anyway…sometimes it’s helpful to just curse the hockey gods and move on. Toronto was massively outshot last night and eked out another win in OT, clinging to the edge of a regression cliff by their fingernails and the grace of good goaltending. Ottawa, at least over their last 10 games, is the reverse story. Their fundamentals are starting to come into alignment, but bad luck and discipline are doing them in.
To be a 92 point team they need to go 30-17-2 over the rest of the season. They have a big game against Toronto on Saturday—the battle of teams with opposite luck and possession. (I’m still looking for somebody to do an analysis of Ottawa’s record during Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it’s really very terrible.) And knowing the hockey god’s cruel sense of humour, it could go absolutely anywhere. But if there are two things that you can bet on, they’re that Chris Neil will take a penalty, and on the ensuing penalty kill, Ottawa will probably get scored on.