With only 18 games left in the regular season, the focus for many NHL fans turns to fantasizing potential playoff scenarios. Eddie Benhin indulges us with his take on potential postseason match-ups.
(The following article was written by Eddie Benhin, be sure to follow him on Twitter @beddieb).
The Ottawa Senators are right in the mix of the playoff race. Prior to the game tonight, the Sens are 2nd in the Atlantic with 78 points; however, they are only six points back of the Habs for first place, with three games in hand. In a comparably weak Atlantic division, the top spot is up for grabs. The question is: do the Sens really want it? I will now take a look at what place and what opponent will help Ottawa succeed in the playoffs.
For those unaware of how the playoff seeding works with the new(ish) wild card spots in play, here is the official excerpt from NHL.com:
The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three.
In the First Round, the division winner with the best record in each conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lesser record; the wild card team with the better record will play the other division winner.
The teams finishing second and third in each division will meet in the First Round within the bracket headed by their respective division winners. First-round winners within each bracket play one another in the Second Round to determine the four participants in the Conference Finals.
Home-ice advantage through the first two rounds goes to the team that placed higher in the regular-season standings. In the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, home-ice advantage goes to the team that had the better regular-season record — regardless of the teams’ final standing in their respective divisions.
So let’s take a look at our potential match-ups:
New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins (A.K.A. The Big Bad Metro Division)
Even though the Sens are 4-2-1 this season against these teams so far this season, I do not think the Sens want to pitch a best of 7 battle against them. If the Sens finish first in the Atlantic, they would likely face the New York Rangers in the first round, or whichever Metro division team held down the first wild card spot. All 3 of these teams have scored over 200 goals this season, where Ottawa has only put 170 into the fishing net. The Sens would have to play a very defensive game throughout the entire series and I do not believe it is physically and mentally possible to do that against these teams with their star players, such as the Crosbys, Malkins, Atkinsons or King Henrys, at their best.
It is very possible that the Senators first round opponent would be the Boston Bruins. The most likely scenario that this matchup occurs is if the Sens finish second in the Atlantic, followed by the Bruins at third. The Sens have never played the Bruins in the playoffs, but this season they have posted a 2-0-0 record against the team so far. Even with this record, the two teams are very comparable. Whatever way Boston wants to play, the Sens can match them. If they want to play dirty and physical, we have Boro, Neil, Burrows, Smith and even smaller players, like Pageau and Pyatt, that can be a nuisance. If the Bruins want to play a quick-paced style of hockey, we can match them with Karlsson, Turris, Dzingel, and Stalberg.
However, the one advantage Ottawa has that could help them win the series is our goaltending. Boston’s goaltending has not been that great this season, where the Sens’ has been as close to lights-out as possible. Our team’s season save percentage is .914 where the Bruins have a save percentage of .901. If you compare Anderson to Rask, you would see that Andy has a GAA of 2.24 where Tuukka is right below with 2.28. Additionally, the strong tandem of Anderson and Condon provides the Sens options over a seven game series, should one of the two struggle or sustain injury.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Due to the lack of Toronto’s recent playoff appearances, Ottawa hasn’t had a chance to get revenge after their loss in the 2003-04 playoff series where they fell 4-3. However if they met this year in the playoffs, to say it would be a bloodbath would be an understatement. The Battle Of Ontario hasn’t lived up to its name for the past couple of years, you could almost say it went into hibernation. So if these two bitter rivals met in the playoffs it could bring the rivalry right back, just as it has this season with the increased competitiveness. The physicality would be at an all time high, the speed would be tremendous and the atmosphere in both arenas would be electrifying. This would be truly one of the best playoff series that Ottawa would play in a long time. Ottawa is 3-1-0 this season against the Maple Leafs, so it is safe to say that Ottawa would have a slight advantage. Anoter contributing factor that would likely favour the Sens in this potential series are the Leafs rookies, most of which have no playoff experience. It would be intense, but in my opinion, the Leafs would be a perfect match for Ottawa.
Florida Panthers & Tampa Bay Lightning
The Sens’ kryptonite seems to be both of the Florida teams. The Sens have only won 3 of 7 this season against these two teams combined and they have been outscored 22-17. If the Sens faced one of these teams, it would be a very hard fought series which they would probably lose. Tampa’s powerplay is deadly with a 22.1% success rate, good enough to place them 5th in the league. With the Sens’ penalty trouble, this could prove to be the difference. The Panthers, with players like Jagr, Trocheck, and Huberdeau, could also prove too much to handle as their combined speedy style of play could finish Ottawa, even with players such as Karlsson to counterbalance Florida’s lines. We haven’t even talked about the travel between sunny Florida to cold Ottawa, and it could very well play a part in the mindset of the Sens. Overall Ottawa should stay far away as possible from these two teams. This matchup is highly unlikely in the first round at least, however, as the Sens would have to finish first in the division AND have the most points in the Eastern Conference, and Florida or Tampa would have to make up significant ground to secure the second wild card spot, beating out teams like Boston and Toronto. Theoretically, either team could leapfrog into third place as well, with the Sens staying in second, in which case the teams would meet in the first round, but again, this is unlikely barring a major Bruins/Leafs collapse.
At the end of the day, Sens fans should be hoping that Ottawa maintains their second seed so they can stay clear of the Metro Division, at least for the first round. As well, we should hope that Ottawa plays either the Bruins or the Leafs, as that is the best chance for entertaining hockey and for success in Ottawa.
Most exciting match-up: Toronto Maple Leafs
Most likely match-up: Boston Bruins
Most intimidating match-up: Metro Division teams
As an aside, Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath), has calculated the most recent match-ups for each team based on the current standings and point projections:
As of March 7, 2017, Micah has calculated the following point projections per team, based on recent performance:
- MTL – 101.2
- OTT – 97.5
- BOS – 92.9
- TOR – 90.1 (misses playoffs)
- FLA – 89.6 (misses playoffs)
- TB – 88.4 (misses playoffs)
Special thanks to Eddie for writing this article for us. Be sure to follow him on Twitter! All credit for point projection data following the article goes to Micah Blake McCurdy (I’m sure you’re already following Micah on Twitter, but if not, do it now).