January and February were two very different months for the Ottawa Senators. In January it didn’t look like they belonged in the league. The Senators’ problems were vast. They won their first game and lost the remaining eight. They surrendered a horrid 4.89 goals per game over the stretch. However, things turned around in February. They had a record of six wins and eight losses, winning five out of their last eight games. This run has played a role in getting Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien fired, and causing doubt for Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames fans. Here is how the Senators went from having lots of problems to now causing them.
The Ottawa Senators Problems in January and How They Fixed Them
Excellent goaltending masks problems a team might have. Ottawa’s goaltending highlighted the Senators’ problems. They had the league’s worst save percentage at 84.51 percent, their goals against per game was a goal worse than the next closest team, the San Jose Sharks. Their expected goals against was 28 and their actual was 44. Over 48 goalies who played over 190 minutes that month, Ottawa’s goalies Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg were last and second to last in save percentage and goals against.
Luckily for Ottawa, they have improved in February. The Senators’ save percentage went up to 90.5 percent, which still is not great, but better. Murray’s save percentage for that month is 90.5 percent and Hogberg’s is 87.7.
Murray’s save percentage is where it was with the Pittsburgh Penguins during two of the past three seasons, so he’s getting back to normal. He has had great games like stopping 36 of 38 shots against the Montreal Canadiens to help Ottawa end their nine-game losing streak. He also has bad games, like giving up six goals on 26 shots against the Flames to end the month. However, his bad games come during times where he’s tired. With Joey Daccord playing well, and Hogberg expected to return from injury soon, Ottawa has two goalies to use for Murray to rest.
Hogberg got hurt halfway through the month, so there is less of a read on him. In the four games he’s played he’s been up and down. He got pulled against Edmonton and allowed five goals in two periods against the Toronto Maple Leafs before their epic comeback. However, he shut down the Maple Leafs once the comeback started. He also stopped 30/31 shots in a 5-1 against the Winnipeg Jets. His injury isn’t supposed to be serious.
One of the reasons the goalies had a boost is because the defence did.
A lot of those defensive issues had to do with player deployment. In January, only Ottawa’s top defensive pair of Thomas Chabot and Nikita Zaitsev had a Corsi For percentage above 50 percent at even-strength. The worst were Braydon Coburn (44.13) and Josh Brown (35.00). This was similar for scoring chances allowed per minute, Brown, Coburn and Erik Gudbranson gave up the most at even-strength.
In February, coach D.J Smith has scratched Brown and Coburn and replaced them with Artem Zub and Erik Brannstrom This made a big difference.
Zub has joined Mike Reilly on the second pair. Reilly can be a solid defender who can move the puck when he’s not overwhelmed. Zub is an excellent defender and puck mover, putting pressure off Reilly. Together they have a Corsi For percentage of 51.94, outshot their opposition 74-55 and outscored them 7-4.
The third pair has been helped by Brånnström joining Gudbranson. Brannstrom is a small defender who excels at skating and moving the puck, but can be outmuscled. Gudbranson can outmuscle anyone but struggles with skating and puck-moving. They balance each other. In February, they had a 50.54 Corsi For percentage, created more scoring chances than they have allowed, and allowed one more goal than they scored. However, they are outshot 38-58, meaning it is easier to get shots through on them.
In 14 games in February, Ottawa allowed fewer than three goals six different times. They didn’t do that once in January. Ottawa is still in the bottom three in shots against, scoring chances and high danger chances against. Their defence still has some work to do.
The offence wasn’t one of the Senators’ problems in January, the issue was the number of goals they were allowing. However, the offence wasn’t great. In January, Ottawa scored 2.44 goals per game which was 26th in the league and their power play is running at 15.4 percent, which is 21st. However, they create a lot of chances. Ottawa had 32 shots on goal per game in January.
Ottawa had a moderate jump of 2.71 goals per game in February. However, since their miracle comeback against Toronto, Ottawa has scored 3.71 goals per game until the end of February, which is second in the league. Their offence was rapidly rising to end the month.
Why this happened is a combination of confidence, chemistry and hotness. Ottawa has looked more confident since they made their comeback. Their passing is better, their decisions are better and they’re being more creative in the offensive zone.
They’ve found some chemistry among their top-three forward lines. They are Brady Tkachuk–Joshua Norris–Connor Brown, Tim Stützle–Derek Stepan–Drake Batherson and Nick Paul–Colin White–Evgenii Dadonov. All of those lines are above 50 percent Corsi For and have either outscored or are even with their opposition.
The line that has heated up the most is the combination of Stützle and Batherson. Stützle is a creative playmaker and Batherson has an excellent shot. The result has been that Batherson has scored goals in six straight games and Stützle has assisted in four straight before their loss to Montreal this week. In January, Stützle had two goals and Batherson has one goal and four assists. In February they both scored 10 points in 14 games. Stützle was named Rookie of the Month. They just need to find a centre for them with Stepan out for the season.
The improved Senators have started dishing out punishment instead of taking it. They beat Montreal three out of four times in February. After their last win, Montreal’s head coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Kirk Muller were fired. Ottawa’s wins were a part of a much larger picture of why those two coaches were let go. However, if Montreal grabs those two extra wins, they’re now tied for second in the North Division and maybe don’t make that decision.
They’ve also caused crises for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames. Ottawa coming back from a 5-1 deficit against Toronto brought up concerns that they still might be a fragile team. They have won two out of three games against Calgary, scoring a combined 11 goals in both wins. This hasn’t helped the Flames’ confidence, who have been struggling for most of the season.
We will see if Ottawa causes any other problems in March, but they’re no longer a team the rest of the country can take lightly. If teams want to beat Ottawa, they’re going to have to bring their top game.