The Ottawa Senators were the best team in the NHL from Feb. 10 through the end of the season. It stands to reason they can continue to be the best in the NHL until the middle of June.
Every team wants to be playing its best hockey going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Senators certainly can say they are.
Ottawa went 23-4-4 in their final 31 games to climb from 14 points out entering their game against the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 10 to make their way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Ottawa went on its run because it got surprisingly elite goaltending from Andrew Hammond and used the confidence gained from that to play fast and aggressive in all three zones, particularly through the middle of the ice.
In doing so, the Senators got some luck on their side and turned a bad trend of losing one-goal games into a positive trend by winning them. They were 10-12-9 in one-goal games through Feb. 8; they went 11-0-4 in one-goal games from Feb. 10 through the end of the season, including 7-4 in games extended past regulation.
There are four big reasons the Senators went on their big run, and why they have it in them to take this the distance in the spring.
It starts with Hammond, who the players credit for instilling the confidence to believe making the playoffs was a real possibility.
Hammond, who was a middling American Hockey League goalie with poor numbers in Binghamton, got hot after he was recalled in mid-February. Hammond's story gained steam when the Senators went to California and swept the three teams there with Hammond getting shutouts against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings before allowing two goals in a win against the San Jose Sharks.
Hammond was 14-0-1 with a .946 save percentage in his first 15 starts. He finished the regular season with a 20-1-2 record, .941 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average in 24 appearances. He didn't make his season debut until Feb. 16.
In his final eight periods plus an overtime of the regular season, with a playoff berth essentially on the line, Hammond allowed one goal on 77 shots.
Ottawa's rookies have also been key to its success.
There wasn't a rookie forward better than Senators right wing Mark Stone during the final two months of the season. To that end, the only forward of any age of experience who had more points than Stone during the final two months of the season was Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn.
Stone had 14 goals and 35 points in the final 31 games. He finished the season on a nine-game point streak, which featured four two-point games. He scored five game-winning goals in that stretch, and seven goals over the final six games of the season.
In addition, rookie forward Mike Hoffman provided important production early in the 31-game run to the playoffs. Hoffman, who finished the season with 27 goals and 48 points, had 14 points in 13 games from Feb. 10 through March 8. He scored the game-winning goals in Los Angeles and San Jose.
Curtis Lazar also showed some positive signs late in the season. He had an assist in each of the final two games and seven shots on goal in the last four while playing third-line minutes.
Stone, Hoffman and Lazar were given the opportunity to play by coach Dave Cameron and ran with it. Stone and Hoffman became top-six forwards on separate lines. Lazar found a home on the third line.
Stone plays with Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur on the first line; Hoffman plays with Mika Zibanejad and Bobby Ryan on the second line; and Lazar is with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Erik Condra on the third line.
The attack, though, starts from the back, with captain Erik Karlsson, who was the Senators' leading scorer this season with 66 points in 82 games. Karlsson had 31 points in the final 31 games, all played alongside defense partner Marc Methot.
Though Ottawa started winning Feb. 10, it can be argued its turnaround started a month earlier, on Jan. 8, when Methot returned to the lineup from an injury and reunited with Karlsson.
Karlsson had 25 points and was a minus-8 in the 37 games Methot missed this season; he had 41 points and was a plus-15 in the 45 games Methot played. Ottawa was 16-13-8 without Methot and 27-13-5 with him in the lineup.
If all of that was enough for the Senators to become the best team in the NHL during the final two months of the season, there is a legitimate argument to be made for them being able to do it for another two months.