Pittsburg on the road. The Blues on the road in the second of back-to-back games. Buffalo at home. Boston on the road. Then the Olympic break.
If everything unfolds the way you’d expect it to, Ottawa could conceivably head into the break 25-24-10. This would drop their playoff odds to low-single-digit probability with only 23 games remaining.
March isn’t going to be much easier; the Senators start the post-break period with a Western Conference road swing—and hey look, TWO afternoon games, where Ottawa has established themselves as a hot bag of diapers—and there are only a few games left against the teams they’re chasing in the standings.
In other words, and in the parlance of talking heads everywhere, Ottawa doesn’t really control their own destiny at this point. I’m reminded of the whole “run the table” moment a few years back; Ottawa needs to be dominant against teams they haven’t traditionally been dominant against, and needs the other teams in the Atlantic to basically have epic collapses.
The Winnipeg Jets are a pretty good cautionary tale about getting one’s hopes up. Since Paul Maurice took over the head coaching job they’re something like 9-2. Their playoff odds are all the way up to 11%.
All of this to say that I’m all for Hail Mary passes if they double as opportunities for player development. Why, for example, would the team continue to turn to Anderson at this point in the season? Why not give Lehner a string of games and see if he can steal one or two of them? The worst that could happen is that you get an extended look at what, exactly, you have on your hands. Especially if you intend to hand him the starting position at this point next year. (Cynical question: are they keeping him out of the crease in order to lessen his bargaining power, as he’s due a new contract in the off season?)
Why not call up a Mike Hoffman and give him more than seven minutes? You can play him where Neil usually plays. Oh, and you can scratch Neil. Just drop him off on the Airport Parkway with a paper bag lunch and thank him for his contributions. If that seems mean, then promote him to Chief Pump Up Artist and put him on staff. Just keep him off the ice. (Yes, I know he had two goals against the Leafs, which brings his numbers up to ‘atrocious.’)
The point being that last year Ottawa had a reputation as a pesky, young team who played every night as if to prove that they belonged in this league. That was no surprise; they were playing for their jobs. In some cases, it worked. (Cough, cough, Colin Greening’s new contract.) We’ve been hearing all week about all of this NHL talent Ottawa has down in Bingo. Let’s see it. What do we have to lose?
Murray said it himself this past weekend. “We are what we are.” And after this week, what Ottawa may be may be is free to experiment. Because the season is looking increasingly cooked.