The quick answer: A Senators playoff appearance is just as unlikely as an NHL team turning water into wine with an unproven netminder with a 7-13 AHL record that included a 3.51 goals against average and a sub-.900 save percentage. Those are not statistics typically worthy of promotion, but Andrew Hammond didn’t care when given his big opportunity on February 18, 2015 against the eventual Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens. Hammond shouted “Carpe Diem!”, backstopped Ottawa to a 4-2 42-save victory and rejuvenated the struggling Sens with the following numbers unrecognizable back in Binghamton:
Andrew Hammond – Ottawa – 2014-15 – 20-1-2 W/L/OTL, 1.79 GAA, .941 SV%
It’s best to head back to early January for the longer answer. That’s when the Senators hit the halfway mark with 42 points. Let’s just put this in perspective. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs had 45 after their 41st game. The only 2015 playoff participant with fewer points at the midway mark was the Minnesota Wild (41 points) and they were about to leap upon the shoulders of an unexpected goaltender themselves.
But teams rally from 42 points after 41 games to make the second season all the time. Right? I mean, it has been done. But it’s not close to being prevalent. Let me explain using some historical data between the 2005-06 and 2013-14 seasons. This is the time period after the NHL adopted the shootout; therefore, this is the best period in which to compare season to season point totals.
I tracked the points after 41 games for the 32 teams that qualified for the playoffs between 2006 and 2014 as a 7 or 8-seed, or as a wild card in the latest playoff format. I ignored the lockout shortened 2012-13 season due to an obvious lack of comparability. The highest point total belonged to the 2008d Senators (58 points) and the lowest were attributable to the 2007 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2014 Columbus Blue Jackets (40 points each). These records are the bookends and the teams falling in-between comprise the following percentile graph.
The Minnesota Wild are a great example as to how to read this graph. As indicated above, the Wild had 41 points midway through the 2014-15 season. In comparison to the 32 teams in my analysis, Minnesota falls right at the 10th percentile. This means that, on average, 90% of the teams that qualify for the playoffs as a 7 or 8-seed (or wild card) have a midseason record equal to or higher than Minnesota’s 41 points. Falling at the 10th percentile is proof as to how uncommon the Wild’s midseason resurgence was.
If we look at the Senators, their 42 points after 41 games sets them between the 10th and 25th percentiles. Or, in other words, only six of the 32 teams in my analysis qualified for the playoffs with a lower midseason point total. The most notable with fewer points were the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers who both had 41 points. During the 2010 playoffs, the Canadiens slayed the 1-seed Washington Capitals in the Eastern quarters after facing a 3-1 series deficit and the Flyers survived all the way to the Stanley Cup Final even after facing a 3 game hole in their series versus the Boston Bruins. Perhaps teams that rally in the second half of the regular season are more resilient to overcoming playoff adversity.
Another positive way to view Ottawa’s comeback from an unlikely midseason position is to compare each team’s point production over the second half of the season. In the following graph, I have isolated the results from the final 41 games to Ottawa’s rivals in the Eastern Conference.
If momentum heading in the playoffs is a significant factor, then the Ottawa Senators have plenty going their way. The Sens had the second highest second half point total in the Eastern Conference this season (57 points) and only trailed the New York Rangers and Wild among the entire league. So does that mean the Senators will have a distinctive advantage over their first round opponent? Sorry Ottawa, but the Canadiens also performed exceptionally well over the last 41 games with 55 points. However, you can’t say Montreal upped their game over the second half – in fact, the Habs remained steady and dominant all season posting 55 points in the first half of the season as well.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.