Last spring, the Toronto Blue Jays went into the season with increased expectations. They won 12 of their last 22 games, including their last game on the season, to finish at .500, a symbolic marker if anything, and in the offseason got a glut of reinforcements from their prospect system to shore up their rotation and their infield. Young Brett Lawrie looked like he was on the verge of stardom, giving the Jays three right-handed power bats along with home run champ Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
Then, oh boy, the disappointment. The Blue Jays suffered injuries everywhere in their lineup. Closer Sergio Santos didn’t make it out of the first month. Every good pitcher in the rotation suffered some sort of weird injury—three starters ended up on the 60-Day DL. The team got awful luck and finished 16 games below .500.
This isn’t a baseball blog, and I’m by no means a baseball expert, but I do recognize how tough it is to come into a season with some high expectations and then see every player leave the lineup to some unfortunate accident. Welcome to the 2013 Ottawa Senators season.
The Ottawa Senators didn’t have high expectations coming into the lockout-shortened season, but after a playoff appearance last year and taking the No. 1 seed New York Rangers to seven games in the post-season, you could say that there was some reason for optimism in Ottawa. I had Ottawa as an early season playoff favourite, noting the excellent track record of goaltender Craig Anderson and Ottawa’s plus-possession team last season.
Of the total Fenwick events (every unblocked shot) that took place in Ottawa Senators games last year in score close situations, the Senators took 50.9% of them. That doesn’t seem like it’s a lot, but an extra shot out of 100 can make a big difference when so many teams are so tight thanks to three point games that artificially increase the record of crappy Southern teams all the parity brought in by the heroic Gary Bettman.
The Senators made a savvy addition in former No. 3 pick Kyle Turris, who had a good second half in Ottawa last year. They also picked up the underrated Mike Lundin and traded a third liner in Nick Foligno for a top four defenceman in Marc Methot. With the additions of Swedish rookies Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg, I think the playoffs were a very reasonable expectation.
That was then. Now, the Senators are without Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek, Guillaume Latendresse, Jared Cowen and Peter Regin, all roster players. Spezza is the team’s best forward and Michalek led the team in scoring last season. Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best offensive defenceman. Despite this, the Sens kept winning, and with a win over New York on Thursday, were 10-8 with two overtime defeats, good for 7th place in the Conference.
Also on Thursday, the team lost Craig Anderson to a sprained ankle. Anderson is a remarkably consistent goalie year-to-year who gets very few accolades. He was on a hot streak to start the season, with a .953 even strength save percentage, giving Ottawa the lowest goals against total in the NHL with 1.83. Now, the Ben Bishop era or the Robin Lehner era looks to begin in Ottawa. Both are capable goaltenders, but unproven at the NHL level. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
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|Fenwick Close||53.04% (7th)||45.77% (26th)|
|Team Shooting %||5.90%||9.70%|
|Team Save %||0.942||0.939|
|PP Success||17.2% (15th)||16.5% (18th)|
|5v4 GF/60||6.2 (10th)||5.0 (21st)|
|5v4 SF/60||59.6 (2nd)||48.6 (13th)|
|PK Success||89.9% (2nd)||82.3% (16th)|
|4v5 GA/60||4.0 (2nd)||6.1 (15th)|
|4v5 SA/60||51.8 (23rd)||49.3 (19th)|
What these numbers show is how important goaltending has been to both teams. While an awful lot of press is given to Craig Anderson in Ottawa this season, Ben Scrivens and James Reimer have combined for the 3rd highest even strength save percentage among teams in the NHL this season: behind just Ottawa and Nashville. They’re actually ahead of the Roberto Luongo-Cory Schneider tandem in Vancouver.
I don’t think anybody expects that to last, given how often Toronto lets the opposition play with the puck in the other team’s zone. Over the last week, the Leafs Fenwick Close ranking bumped up a few spots, but they got to play three straight games against three of the worst possession teams in the league in Florida, Tampa Bay and Buffalo. Tonight, they’ll go up against Ottawa.
The Senators held the edge in scoring chances last time the teams met, but they held a big lead in pucks directed at the net. There was also a very small number of scoring chances each side and the first period was dreadfully boring. I think the Sens have a clear puck-possession edge even without their stars, but the Leafs have been good at keeping pucks to the outside these season on defence, and the Sens have had some goal-scoring problems.
Here were the Sens’ lines last time out:
Jakob Silfverberg – Kyle Turris – Daniel Alfredsson
Kaspars Daugvavins – Stephane da Costa – Derek Grant
Colin Greening – Mika Zibanejad – Erik Condra
Dave Dziurzynski – Zack Smith – Chris Neil
Marc Methot – Eric Gryba
Chris Phillips – Andre Benoit
Patrick Wiercoch – Sergei Gonchar
So scratch Anderson for Lehner. Stephane Da Costa has been sent down to the club’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton, and according to Bruce Garrioch, Mike Lundin will play in place of Andre Benoit alongside Chris Phillips. Jim O’Brien will replace Stephane da Costa on the third line.
A lot of defined player roles here, unfortunately, not an awful lot of healthy players. Zibanejad sees a lot of offensive zone starts (he’s far to the right in the graph) but also pairs off against good forward lines. He’ll probably go up against the Mikhail Grabovski line tonight if Carlyle can get the matchup.
Look how that compares to Zack Smith and Chris Neil, who play in plus territory on a pretty effective checking unit. A lot of people like to suggest Neil is a goon, but I think he’s a bit more than that, and one of the players described by Justin Bourne as a player tough to play against.
On defence, here’s what the graph looks like:
Sergei Gonchar and Marc Methot see the tough competition, but Methot for some reason gets the offensive starts and Gonchar’s been relegated to third-pairing status at evens. Not a lot of plus Ottawa defencemen have seen 10 games this season, so the usage chart doesn’t really tell us much. I can tell you that Methot and Eric Gryba lined up almost exclusively against Brad Richards last time out.
So they’ll probably play against the Kessel unit. Ottawa coach Paul MacLean likes to match up his fourth line against the other teams’ first, and play them a lot in the defensive zone, so that could mean Grabovski will see a lot of Silfverberg, Turris and Alfredsson tonight just by the way the minutes work. That leaves Nazem Kadri to deal with the makeshift second and third lines Ottawa will have. Given that the Sens’ top line isn’t exactly a two-way threat, hopefully the ice opens up a little bit for Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk who have been on a tear.
For the Leafs, the lines are as follows:
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
Nik Kulemin – Mikhail Grabovski – Jay McClement
Mike Brown – David Steckel – Frazer McLaren
Dion Phaneuf – Korbinian Holzer
Mike Kostka – Carl Gunnarsson
Cody Franson – Mark Fraser
No changes for the Leafs tonight apparently, and I wouldn’t see why. The top three lines have been playing well of late and Kadri has been dominant when he plays with an NHLer on his wing and not Colton Orr. I’d like to see Steckel get some PK minutes, but that doesn’t seem to be the way Randy Carlyle wants to work his bench, so we’re stuck with another six-minute performance out of the fourth line while Ottawa get to roll four competent lines.
That’s one of the things I like about the Senators: their depth lines can be used in certain areas of the ice. They bring up AHLers who can score goals like da Costa and Condra and Greening instead of plucking plugs off the waiver wire to fill roster spots. This is why Ottawa can continue being a good possession team in spite of their injuries: they allow their good minor leaguers to win offensive ice time. The Leafs have lost Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin, but the replacements are not the Joe Colbornes of the world, but Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.
Ottawa are a better team, but they’ve had trouble scoring. The Leafs are a weak defensive team who have had some good goaltending luck. Will either trend break tonight?
Lines information from Left Wing Lock