This post is a part of Senators day at PHT…
During the Ottawa Senators’ stunning run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals much of the attention was focussed on their “boring” style of play under coach Guy Boucher, and how they were able to play a tight defensive game to scratch and claw their way to victories.
And all of that was a big factor.
Boucher put in place a system that worked for the talent he had, and the results were there.
But it’s not like this was a particularly great defensive team that shut teams down. They ended up getting outscored (by only two goals, but still) during the regular season, and when you look at the number of shots and total shot attempts they allowed, or the fact they were near the bottom of the league on the penalty kill they were pretty much a middle of the pack team.
Having a top-five player in the world in Erik Karlsson certainly helped, but so did the performance of starting goaltender Craig Anderson.
Anderson’s season was a difficult one off the ice as he left the team on more than one occasion to be with his wife, Nichole, as she went through her battle with cancer.
On the ice when he was in the lineup he was perhaps the Senators’ most important player (not best … but most important) because there was a noticeable difference in the team’s ability to win with him in net versus when there was any other goalie. A lot of that is due to the way the Senators played and the number of shots — and shot attempts — they surrendered.
Anderson has been an underrated starter for quite some time and since arriving in Ottawa has been one of the more productive starters in the league. His .920 save percentage since joining the Senators is among the 10 best in the league during that time (active goalies with at least 100 games played) and he always performed well in the playoffs (.929 career save percentage).
When he was in the lineup during the 2016-17 season the Senators, including playoffs, were 36-19-4, which would have been a 104-point pace over 82 games.
With the trio of Mike Condon, Chris Dreidger and Andrew Hammond they managed only a 19-17-6 record … an 85-point pace over 82 games.
That change is not a coincidence when you look at Anderson’s performance with a .926 regular season save percentage that was third best in the league, as well a .922 mark in the playoffs.
Without that level of play from Anderson — especially in the postseason — there was no system in the world that was going to lift Ottawa to the level it ended up reaching. They were only 15th in the league in terms of shots on goal against, and when it came to 5-on-5 play they were one of the worst teams in terms of giving up total shot attempts.
Combine that with an offense that wasn’t particularly explosive and it was always going to be a team that needed to rely on strong goaltending. And Anderson gave them that.
Given that the Senators are bringing back almost the exact same roster this season with the same coach using the same system there is little reason to believe much is going to change with the Senators’ style of play. That means there is going to be a lot of pressure on Anderson to put together another strong performance like the one we saw this past year. Even if a league-average effort from Anderson on the same number of shots would have added another 14-18 goals against to the Senators’ total for the season, a number that would have pushed them from 10th in the league in goals against all the way down to 18th, and significantly worsened an already bad goal differential. With only four points between them and the Tampa Bay Lightning (a team that should be better this season due to better health) there is not much margin for error there.