The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (45-19-8) versus the Ottawa Senators (35-22-5). Opposition Blog: Silver Seven
The Time: 7:00 PM
The Broadcast: TV - SN1, MSGSN
Going into the season, Ottawa fans and the team’s management were optimistic that they, much like the Devils have, would climb out of the basement and enter the playoffs. They have done the former, but not the latter, with their playoff hopes being in tatters. Check out the following, from The Athletic, showing the playoff probabilities for each team in the Atlantic division throughout the season.
Ottawa is in black, and as you can see, there was a point, just before March 11th when they were trending upwards while their division rivals Buffalo and Detroit were fading. This coincided with an impressive stretch where they won five games in a row from February 25th to March 4th. Since then they have gone 3-6-1, plummeting back down to earth. There are positive signs, of course, with a very talented forward group and a strong left-side on defense, but playoffs? Not this season, I’m afraid.
Sens’ Previous Game
A couple of nights ago the Sens played one of their (results-wise) best games of the season, thumping the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-2 (I do find it difficult to believe that the Lightning took this game as seriously as they did the Devils games, so take it with a grain of salt). They dominated, getting 63% on the Deserve To Win O’Meter. The following is the game score for the Sens in that game, per HockeyStatsCards.
Alex DeBrincat (who has had a difficult season with the Sens in his first year since being traded from Chicago) led the way with two goals and an assist. Most of the big guns — Tkachuk, Giroux, Chabot — played good games, with only Tim Stutzle being underwhelming of the guys you’d expect more of (Sanderson is a rookie, so we can give him a break).
The Sens will no doubt be coming in with confidence, and with an extra day’s rest (the Devils are on a back-to-back, after yesterday’s embarrasment in Buffalo). Despite not having anything to play for the Sens will want to win, so expect them to come out quick, trying to take advantage of a tired opponent.
Depth and Defensive Efforts
The above is the Senators’ depth chart, from The Athletic. What stands out to me for the most part is that, while they have got decent talent, with their top-six above league average, but nothing spectacular, their depth up-front is seriously poor, with their third and fourth lines being, ehm, questionable. For context, their individual points per game this season are:
Which sums to 1.45 points per game from the bottom six. Given that more than one forward tends to get a point on a 5-on-5 goal, this doesn’t make great reading. Especially when their defensive impacts are considered. Per The Athletic’s hockey stat cards for the Sens, the best guy defensively is Dylan Gambrell. And he is hardly a stalwart: (HockeyViz)
He is just above average (defensively, don’t check his offense), which is not the bar you would like to set for your bottom-six. I hope to see the Devils take advantage of those weaker lines when they are out there.
Not to pick on Gambrell, of course. Indeed, he is the best defensive forward on the Sens! The top-six is uniformly below average defensively. This is not their main responsibility, of course. These top guys are producing respectably this year, with the top-line of Stutzle, Tkachuk and Giroux being, respectively, 15th, 32nd and 41st in points per game this season among NHL forwards, and 7th in expected goals for per 60 minutes among the 109 lines to play at least 150 5-on-5 minutes together this year. But all the same, those defensive metrics would make me upset as a Sens fan, as it seems like it is a systematic thing where the Sens forwards aren’t trying as hard as they could be defensively (I infer this from the fact that literally all of them are bad). Looking forward to watching some lazy backchecking and odd-man rushes for the Devils!
Lightning on D
If you consider the defensive unit the Sens have put together in the depth chart above, you would be correct in thinking that it looks slightly lopsided. Their left side is given an A, relative to the rest of the league, while the righ side is below average with a C. Now, new acquisition Jakob Chychrun is most likely out for the Devils game (Erik Brannstrom, who scored a great goal against Tampa, will take his place), but I think the structure here is highly interesting. It reminds me of what the Tampa Bay Lightning have done over the past couple years, where they have had a left side of all-star guys Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, and a right side of what are essentially random, middle/bottom-pairing type guys. Even this year, after McDonagh was traded for cap relief to Nashville in the offseason, Tampa have the same polarised model, also being given an A and a C for their left and right sides. This has obviously been a successful model, so I look forward to seeing how it pans out for the Senators over the next couple years.
Back in 2015, the Sens were on the outside looking in, more than ten points out of the second wildcard spot, with both of their goalies injured. In came Andrew Hammond, who put the team on his back and led them into the playoffs by the end of the season, going 20-1-2 with a save percentage of 0.941. This was clearly the highlight of the Hamburgler’s career, but not the only highlight, as he, for instance, went on to have further success with the New Jersey Devils (...)
This year, the Sens are hoping for a similar miracle, as they basically have to win out to make the playoffs (they are not mathematically eliminated quite yet). The new guy this time around, with goalies Cam Talbot and Anton Forsberg out, is Dylan Ferguson, who on Monday made his first NHL start and saved 48 of the 49 shots the Pittsburgh Penguins put on him, saving three goals above expected in the process. What makes him the Hamburgler heir apparent is his similarly obscure background and story leading up to the NHL. After not being available the following night against Boston, being ill, he was the backup against Tampa on Thursday, so I fully expect him to be in net tonight against the Devils.
What to expect tonight? Magic. Either he is useless or he is amazing (or, I guess, somewhere in between but you’d imagine one of the two extremes would be more likely given the circumstances). The following, from HockeyViz, is the shot chart for Pittsburgh at even strength in Ferguson’s first start.
They obviously put the puck on from pretty much everywhere. Perhaps not from the lower circles as much, so maybe moving the puck around quickly and getting some sharp-angled shots could do the trick? Jack Hughes’ two (legitimate) goals tonight came from that sort of region, so maybe that could be an angle to exploit? We’ll see, but hopefully the magic runs out whatever the Devils end up trying.
The Sens are, somewhat surprisingly, a very good special teams team, being 7th in success rate in both categories, as I write this. However, take a look at the following, from HockeyViz:
Their powerplay is as advertised, also being 7th in xg for per 60. However, they are vastly overperforming expectation on the penalty kill, being below average in xG against. Indeed, check this out from MoneyPuck:
With actual goals against on the x-axis and xG on the y-axis, the Sens have got a huge positive residual, where they are, per 60 minutes, conceding 1.4 goals fewer than expected. How is this the case? NaturalStattrick has Ottawa at the highest short-handed save percentage in the NHL this year. This has obviously been with a different set of goaltenders, indeed, over the past ten they drop to 17th. Over that span they are 25th in short-handed expected goals against per 60, and 15th in actual goals against. Falling back to earth, then (although still outperforming expectation). It will be interesting to see how the new-look Devils powerplay unit with Mercer gets on against the Sens, having scored last night and hit two posts on only two opportunities (against an admittedly terrible Buffalo penalty kill).
The Devils are coming in to this one on the second half of a back-to-back, having lost 5-4 in Buffalo last night in a sloppy, mistake-riddled performance. For more details, check out John’s excellent recap here. My point is that the Devils should come out furious tonight after an embarrasing showing. Lindy Ruff in his post-game shouldered the blame and protected his goaltenders (plural) who weren’t great. They were hung out to dry for the most part part the Devils’ defense, so you would hope for a better effort in front of whoever is in net tonight against the Sens.
On this note, could this whoever be Mackenzie Blackwood, given that he participated fully in the last practice and both of the other guys played last night? You’d have to think that the Devils organisation would want to give Blackwood a couple of games before the playoffs, on the off hand that he plays out of this world and makes a real claim to be involved in the playoff picture? Not that I think this is necessarily likely — despite me being one of the bigger Blackwood fans around here — but I just think it makes sense, given that neither one of the other guys are guarantees. We’ll see, but a win tonight is a must, having now gone 1-3-2 in the past six following that impressive Carolina victory.
What do you think of tonight’s matchup? I want to see the Devils come out quickly, but given that they looked tired already yesterday, I am pessimistic. Who on the Sens are you afraid of? Who can the Devils look to target? Once again the Devils have a chance to claim a playoff spot. Although they will of course make the playoffs irrespective of tonight’s result, I think the symbolism of clinching for the first time since 2018 would be a very pleasant experience, so hopefully the boys get it done tonight. Let me know what you think in the comments, and thank you for reading and supporting the site!