The Ottawa Senators won again last night, they also lost a player to injury last night (this time defenseman Methot). That is one of the most common themes in this 2012-2013 season so far. The Senators have fought through all the adversity thrown their way to this point and currently hold a firm grip on the 5th overall seed in the Eastern Conference. They have 38 points while the Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, and New Jersey Devils all are tied with 32 points.
Just how the hell have the Senators been able to stay afloat? People started to dig Ottawa’s playoff grave when Jason Spezza’s was diagnosed with a long term back injury only 5 games in to the season. Spezza is currently the only Senator with a point per game average (5 points in 5 games).
Somehow the Senators made due without Spezza but when Erik Karlsson went down with a gruesome Achilles’ injury, hockey folks were definitely reading the Senators last rites as a playoff team.
About a week after Karlsson went down with his injury, Craig Anderson, the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy, was hurt with a long term ankle injury. At this point as a Sens fan you almost have to laugh. The season should have certainly been over at that point.
How has Paul MacLean been able to keep his Senators in the playoff race with losing so many players to injury (140 man games before Tuesday’s game per Ken Warren (@citizenkwarren) ? To this point MacLean has gone without the services of Spezza for 25 games, Karlsson for 16 games, Milan Michalek for 15 games, and Craig Anderson for 12 games. Besides the Hart Trophy, is there an easier trophy to award than the Jack Adams for MacLean?
Given that there have been so many injuries it has caused the Senators to try and keep their games manageable. Without their dynamic players in the lineup they dont have the fire power to overcome multi-goal deficits in the same capacity as they would with a fully healthy lineup. This has resulted in a plethora of one goal games. The Senators played in 11 consecutive one goal games from February 21-March 16. The Senators are 8-5-6 on the year in one goal games. Most important is that the Senators have been able to sneak 6 bonus points in the standings by getting some of one goal games to OT. Six points is the cushion they have over that cluster of teams previously mentioned.
The way the Senators are eeking out points with their injuries reminds me of the 2010-2011 Pittsburgh Penguins who were devastated by injury as well. That was the year that Crosby was concussed, Malkin tore his ACL, and Staal missed 40 games. The Penguins finished 4th overall in the conference that year.
Part of the reason MacLean is getting the most out of his players is because he understands how to use his roster. The Senators are 10-1-3 at home and that is no fluke. MacLean works hard to use his matchups wisely and when he has last change at home it certainly gives him an advantage. Here is the Senators player usage chart:
On some teams you will see a giant blob on the graph as coaches use a majority of their players in a similar fashion. Lindy Ruff’s usage of his Sabres players comes to mind earlier this year. On the Senators chart it shows that MacLean differentiates players and their roles on the team. And lets face it, when you are missing as many star players as the Senators are, it is your job as a coach to put your remaining players in the best position to succeed on the ice even more. Noteworthy on the chart is how many blue circles there are. Blue circles mean that a player has a positive Corsi rating. The bigger the circle the bigger the rating. Corsi rating is a possession metric that takes into account the total number of shots taken towards each net. It is like a way better +/- stat. Shots included in Corsi rating include shots that hit the net, miss the net, or are blocked. Given that almost all the Senators have a positive rating that means the puck is being directed at their opponents net a lot more frequently than it is on their own.
Naturally with that many players having a positive Corsi rating, puck possession has been a huge part of the Senators success this year. The Senators rank #1 overall in the NHL in Corsi/for rating. This is a metric that is simply the team version of player Corsi totals. The logic is that teams who are in position to fire that many pucks towards theopponent’s net, must in fact be in possession of the puck more often. Given the Senators #1 overall ranking in this deparment you can conclude that they are one of the best puck possession teams in the entire NHL.
The downfall of this stat is that it does not take into account the quality of shot. This has merit as the Senators rank only 23rd in the league with 2.47 goals for per game. However if you have the puck more often, your opponent has less of a chance to score on you. This is where the possession stats pay dividends for the Senators. They rank #1 overall in the NHL with only allowing 2.03 goals per game, tied with Chicago.
Given that the Senators are only 23rd overall in goals per game it is not surprising that they do not currently have any player in the top 80 scorers of the NHL. In fact their top pointleader is defensemen Sergei Gonchar with 20 points. He is ranked 81st in the league in points scored. Gonchar currently has a career best 8 game assists streak. That streak also happens to be the longest streak in the NHL this season, per John Buccigross (@Buccigross). In his last 8 games Gonchar has 1 goal and 12 assists. Talk about picking up the offensive slack.
Special teams have also played a role in the Senators success this season. The Senators penalty kill ranks 2nd in the NHL with an 88.4% success rate. Only the Boston Bruins have a better penalty kill. The Senators have the 11th ranked power play in the league with a 19.8% conversion rate.
Last but not least Ottawa’s goaltending has been splendid the entire season, even with the injury to Anderson. The Senators team save percentage is 1st overall in the NHL with .939%. The next best team is Chicago at .923%. With goaltenders playing at such a high level it certainly gives the players in the locker room the belief that they can win any game on any given night. Never underestimate the human element in the game of hockey. Hockey is a very intensity driven sport. If players believe they can win, it is much easier to dig deep and bring the proper intensity on a nightly basis.
When you combine the Senators possession metrics with outstanding goaltending, solid special teams, and a coach who understands how to utilize his personnel, you have the 2012-2013 Ottawa Senators. The Senators are a team that will not use injury as an excuse and continue to impress during this NHL season. If the Senators can catch a break and get healthy they could be an extremely tough out in the playoffs. It should be fun to watch their season play out, that much is for sure.
Thanks for reading!