In last year’s playoffs, Guy Boucher raised more than a few eyebrows when he painted his club as an underdog against the New York Rangers – even though the Ottawa Senators had home-ice advantage in the series.
The Ottawa coach’s ‘us-against-the-world’ approach seemed to work, as the Senators ousted the Rangers in six games en route to the Eastern Conference Final.
But on the eve of the 2017-18 regular campaign, Boucher says he’s not planning on playing a similar underdog card to start this season – even though many pundits and experts are predicting a tough year ahead for his team.
“In that room, we’re not using any cards. We know what we’ve got,” said Boucher. “We know we’re not a powerhouse team, but we know that every night if we’re the best team – I didn’t say the best players, I said the best team – then we have a chance to win.”
The Senators will once again be relying on Boucher’s system to help bridge the talent gap between themselves and some of the other top teams in the NHL.
That tactic worked quite well last season, as the Senators punched above their weight class, proving they could hang with elite teams on a nightly basis. They pushed the eventual two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to double-overtime in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference final before they were finally eliminated.
And while many in the hockey world groaned at the Senators success because of their conservative, team-first approach, the players are ready to embrace another season of Boucher’s scheming if it means another long playoff run.
“The way that we play and our system – or whatever you want to call it – can be boring at times and it doesn’t garner a lot of respect,” Bobby Ryan said. “People call it fluky, but it worked for us last year and we played that underdog role great. I don’t have any issue playing that again.”
Most preseason prognostications seem to peg the Senators on the outside looking in at the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. The club is a 33-to-1 longshot to win the Stanley Cup – by far the worst odds given to any of the four clubs that reached the conference final last spring.
The Senators are being treated in a similar fashion to the New Jersey Devils after their unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. The majority of hockey experts felt that run was an aberration and not a predictive sign of future success. As it turns out, the Devils have not qualified for the playoffs since that improbable run five years ago.
At best, some publications have predicted the Senators could scrape into one of the final two wild-card spots. The consensus from the TSN Hockey panel, for example, had Ottawa grabbing the last wild-card spot in the conference. Externally, the Senators aren’t being given the respect of a team that reached the league’s final four last spring.
“We don’t try and listen too much to what’s going on outside the locker room. Everyone can have their own opinions on the standings,” said Mike Hoffman. “But we were in the same boat last year. I don’t think too many people thought we were going to do what we did. So coming in this year is no different to us.”
The Senators surprised a lot of people with their extended playoff run because a lot of their regular-season metrics weren’t in line with other elite teams. The analytics community had no faith in them, as they finished 25th in the league in Corsi For percentage – a statistic that measures how often a team possesses the puck.
Even the most basic stats painted Ottawa in a poor light, as the club finished the regular season with a negative goal differential – the only playoff team with that distinction. Ottawa also finished in the bottom 10 in special teams, as both their power play and penalty kill struggled for long stretches. Those factors all contributed to the feeling that Ottawa was a house of cards ready to topple at a moment’s notice.
And yet, the Senators defied conventional and analytical hockey wisdom by advancing deep into the postseason. For that reason, the players inside the locker room aren’t listening to the preseason predictions that have Ottawa as a draft lottery team next summer.
“We really don’t pay attention to what’s going on the outside, besides when you guys tell us that stuff. We obviously have goals inside of our room,” says Dion Phaneuf. “Whether we’re ranked at the bottom, the middle or the top, it doesn’t matter because every team starts with zeroes.”
“Outside that room, not too many people think we’re a playoff team again. So I don’t think we have to deal with anything,” added Boucher. “To me, those are floating things out there. They are like rumours and they have no effect on what we do.”