Two of the more disappointing teams in the National Hockey League this season face off Tuesday in Ottawa as the Senators play host to the Blackhawks.
After coming within an overtime goal of playing for the Stanley Cup last spring, the Senators were expected by many to be in the Eastern Conference playoff mix once again. And although the Hawks lost a few key players over the summer, Chicago still has Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford and several other players who have helped the Blackhawks make the playoffs in 9 straight years and win 3 Stanley Cups since 2010.
However, both Ottawa and Chicago come into this game with some work to do if they hope to simply participate in this year’s playoffs, let alone get a decent seeding. The Senators (14-17-4-5) are 10 points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh as the midway point of the regular season passes this week, and the Sens have six other teams ahead of them in the East as well.
Chicago’s task is not nearly as dire, as the Blackhawks (20-15-5-1) are just 1 point out of the eighth and final spot in the West. But the Western Conference playoff picture includes some surprising teams in Vegas, Winnipeg, Los Angeles and even the Colorado Avalanche, meaning the Hawks might have to beat out quality rivals like the Wild, Ducks, Flames or Stars to get into the post-season.
What these teams’ current playoff outlooks do ensure for us, however, is that we should get a spirited and competitive game between two very motivated clubs. That’s exactly how the oddsmakers are pricing this matchup, making the Senators a very slight -108 home favorite. The total of 5.5 was slightly juiced to the Over as of Tuesday morning.
Let’s break this one down a bit more to see where the smart money is in this matchup.
One big thing I’ve noticed about the Blackhawks over the years, even when they’ve been winning Stanley Cups, is how streaky they are. That trend has continued this season, with the Hawks opening the year with points in 7 of their first 9 games (highlighted by a 10-1 rout of the two-time defending champion Penguins), going on a 5-game losing skid in early December, then immediately following that with a 5-game winning streak.
So if you’re going to bet on the Hawks, you want to make sure they’re running hot. And that’s what they’re doing right now, going 3-1-1 in their last 5 games (with that 1 loss coming against Vegas) and 8-4-1 in their last 13. The offense is also in terrific form, potting at least 3 goals in 5 consecutive outings and scoring 20 goals during that stretch.
The problem with backing Chicago right now is that their #1 goaltender, Crawford, is sidelined by injury and their backups haven’t stepped up to the task. Anton Forsberg will likely start for the Hawks in this game, but before backstopping Chicago to a 4-1 win Sunday over an Oilers team that is struggling offensively, Forsberg’s previous 2 starts saw him allow 5 goals against the Canucks and get yanked in the first period after giving up 3 quick ones to the Capitals. He’s got just 2 victories in 10 starts this year and his goals-against average is over 3. Not exactly the numbers of a goalie you want to support here.
Especially when the Senators are scoring goals at a better clip than they have in months. Ottawa struck for 12 goals in back-to-back wins over the Lightning and Sharks last weekend, finally showing flashes of the team that won the Atlantic Division one year ago. The Sens’ offense is averaging 3.19 goals per game at home, where Ottawa seems to play with a lot more confidence. Matt Duchene may finally be settling in after being acquired from the Avalanche in November, striking for 3 goals and an assist in his last 2 games, and all-world defenseman Erik Karlsson recorded 5 assists in those weekend contests. If Duchene and Karlsson are playing at the tops of their game offensively, this Ottawa attack has a lot of potential.
Like Chicago, however, the Senators have issues in their own end. In its last 17 games, Ottawa has allowed 3 goals or more 14 times, and 3 of those times came against the punchless offenses of the Red Wings, Panthers and Canadiens. Number 1 goaltender Craig Anderson (11-12-5, 3.14 goals-against average and .899 save percentage) hasn’t played nearly as well as he did last season, and backup Mike Condon (3-5-4, 3.29, .899) has struggled as well. As I said earlier, Chicago’s feeling pretty good offensively right now, and this Senators defense isn’t likely to slow them down.
Instead of picking a side in this game, the total has got my attention as I see both teams having the potential to go off offensively. Not only can they capitalize on some shaky netminding at the other end of the ice, but both teams also may feel the need to score as much as possible because of their lack of confidence in their own goaltenders.
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