They are at it again.
The Senators bullied the defending Stanley Cup champions into a corner with their decisive 5-1 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, pushing their Cinderella run much further than anybody anticipated. The Senators are starting to push into uncharted post-lockout territory. Teams with poor possession (.485) and negative goal differentials (-2) do not win multiple games in the Eastern Conference Final.
Since 2006 (post-lockout NHL), there have been 17 teams with a negative differential qualify for the playoffs. Their combined record is 41-77 and only two teams made it through at least one round, with the 2010 Montreal Canadiens winning two. Not one registered more than the 10 victories that the current Senators enjoy.
Once again, the Senators are getting results even though they are shooting from inferior positions on the ice and settling for clear-sighted shots. The Penguins are generating offense, but struggling to finish. Every aspect of shot distribution favors the Penguins, but in the small sample chaos of a playoff series, this can push you out before things normalize.
The Senators overtime success is one reason for their unprecedented run, evoking the 10-overtime run of the 1993 Canadiens. Outside of the overtime results, the comparison ends there. The 1993 Canadiens were a positive possession team, finished sixth overall and had a +46 goal differential. The proper comparable is the 2010 Canadiens, who rode Jaroslav Halak and Michael Cammalleri to the brink of a Cup Final appearance.
The Senators have replicated the same magic through the streaking Craig Anderson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. These types of performances are needed for underdog teams to succeed, and Anderson has delivered a Conn Smythe level performance.
While Anderson has been reasonably well-protected from pre-shot movement, he has been exposed in the high danger area. Anderson is an extremely aggressive goaltender and when he is reading things well and things are breaking his way, he has been able to have success in the postseason, registering a .930 career playoff save percentage. He has been dominant in all aspects of the game, especially his success on slot line passes where he is over .100 points above what an average goaltender would be expected to deliver. Those are elite short term results on par with Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist’s portfolios.
While Anderson has been spectacular, it is only one of the ingredients in this Senators run. Erik Karlsson’s brilliance speaks for itself, but the magic begins to happen when bunches of goals come from unexpected sources like Jean-Gabriel Pageau. A typical 15-game stretch for Pageau results in around three goals. During the 2016-17 season, he registered 12, but through 15 playoff games, he already has eight.
Ten percent shooting percentage on clear-sighted shots, 100% on slot line feeds and 50% on tipped pucks are all double the league norms. The above percentages scream unsustainable, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. His run has propelled the Senators to heights that weren’t viewed as possible a month ago.
With the loss of Kris Letang, who was so valuable to the Penguins 2015-16 Cup run, there isn’t a powerhouse team lurking on the horizon to guarantee an end to this Sens run. The question remains whether it’s reasonable to expect these types of performances to continue for another six wins or whether regression and history will get in the way of the random fun of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Betting the odds isn’t as exhilarating as hitting on 15, but I think I will side with math and history on this one.