Blackhawks and Senators battle it out in Ottawa tonight
Last year, the Ottawa Senators were one of the worst teams in the league, and with very few changes made to the team or staff over the summer, not much better was expected of them this year.
It just goes to show how quirky hockey can be and how you can never predict how seasons will go. This year, the Senators have remained solidly in playoff position for most if not all of the season.
Being in different conferences mean these two teams only see each other once a year on average; they last faced off on January 7, 2011, in Chicago; the Blackhawks won that one, 3-2.
The similarities between the Senators and the Blackhawks right now are many: both sit at 6th in their respective conferences, just 1 point apart (OTT 76; CHI 75). Their records are nearly identical (Chicago 34-24-7, Ottawa 34-23-8), as are other game stats: both score an average 2.98 G/G while allowing 2.92 GA/G. The Sens have both a better PP and PK%; the Blackhawks tend to have 0.5 more SOG while allowing nearly 3 fewer SA. Both are on a current trajectory to reach 95-96 points this season; which means both teams must pull 20 points out of their respective final 17 games of the season (.588 win%).
Both teams have had slumps this season after the All Star Game; and now both are looking to have a solid final run to game 82. Both teams recently pulled out tight wins over the top two teams in the East - Chicago over the Rangers; Ottawa over the Bruins.
The Blackhawks are still missing team captain Jonathan Toews. Sami Lepistö and Dylan Olsen have risen to the occasion as Chiago's 3rd D-line pairing in the absence of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador, both of whom are still out with "upper body injuries". Rookie Brandon Bollig also had a solid showing in Wednesday's game, his first NHL game after being called up to replace enforcer John Scott, who was sent to the Rangers at the trade deadline. Chicago needs to tighten its focus and its stars need to continue to play like the All-Stars they are in Toews' absence; when they play focused and consistent, there is no reason they cannot secure a playoff berth and have a deep run.
The Senators have Erik Karlsson, who is likely to be named one of the Norris finalists this season, and have some of the top scorers in the league, including Jason Spezza, who has had a hot season. Goalie Craig Anderson had a freak accident at home and is expected to be out for at least two weeks; in his absence, Robin Lehner - getting playing time ahead of backup goalie Alex Auld - has been outstanding. Lehner will be in goal tonight against Ray Emery, who once played for Ottawa (and who, by the way, are still paying Emery after buying out his contract a couple seasons ago).
Tonight should be an exciting contest between two well-matched teams with two very vital points on the line.
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Puck drops at 7pm ET / 6pm CT; the game can be found on CSN-Chicago and TSN.