Home sweet home
With a home record of 10-1-3, the Sens have taken more points at home than any other team in the Eastern Conference. Their lone home loss was a 1-0 decision against the Winnipeg Jets on Hockey Day in Canada, a sloppy affair on both sides decided by a fluttered shot from the sideboards tipped up and under Ottawa's crossbar.
In terms of leveraging an advantage, there have been few teams more adept than the Ottawa Senators at getting the most out of minutes in friendly confines.
The necessary question to come from all of this is clear: how are they doing it?
There are three teams above the Sens in the entire NHL when it comes to home winning percentage. The Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks. Of those three, the only team perhaps more surprising than the Sens are the Ducks who many wrote off prior to this season. However, strong goaltending to compliment their star power has shot them into Presidents Trophy contention.
The remaining two, Los Angeles and Chicago, are understandable. The defending Stanley Cup champions are always expected to be a quality team. The Blackhawks were a preseason favourite for many who wound up setting the NHL record for consecutive games without a regulation loss.
The Senators are a bit more of a head scratcher for most. Last season the Sens had the least home wins of any playoff team in the NHL. This season they are battling through a wave of injuries that is virtually biblical in size. They lead the NHL in man games lost to injury with 133. Of the teams ahead of them, Chicago is closest with 60 -- less than half of the Sens total. The Kings and Ducks have lost 32 and 31 man games lost to injury respectively -- 100 less than Ottawa.
This, of course, is just an overview of the sheer volume of man games lost. It doesn't take into account the value to a lineup the likes of Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, Craig Anderson or Milan Michalek bring among the host of others who have been unavailable for extended periods of time. Talking to people who follow the Senators from distance, they will tell you it simply doesn't make sense.
On the ice the reasons for their strong play are there. The team plays a solid two-way system that generates lots of chances on offence and engages all five skaters in defensive zone play. Even during prolonged scoring droughts the Sens were generally outshooting their opponents by a fair margin. Solid goaltending from Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner has kept them in games when those bounces weren't going their way. Various forwards have stepped up at different crucial times.
With that in mind, the team has used the same lineups on the road, what has been so special about the home ice this year? Last season the Sens' home record was comparable to that of lottery teams. This season it ranks among the best of the best.
For the players, it boils down to the comfort home ice brings and a supportive fanbase.
"I think it's just the way we try to be consistent," said Andre Benoit. "We try to come out strong and we've been able to do that at home. It's fun to play here. I don't know if they are, but every game feels like a sell out. It helps us come out strong and focused."
For Benoit there is some added incentive to playing at home. He has the opportunity to play in front of family and friends each night having grown up in nearby St-Albert. Having a cousin, uncle or grandparent in the crowd just adds to the fun factor.
Ben Bishop echoed the sentiment from Benoit, crediting a great fan presence that allows the team to get dialed in and ready to play.
"I think it's the crowd, they're always behind us and we're getting off to good starts. We're just trying to run with it," said Bishop. "The crowd is huge. It's one of the best in the league, they're out in full support every night, it's definitely a big boost for us, especially when we go to places and see they don't have the same support we do. We like to take advantage and reward the fans for coming out."
Bishop has been a clear example of that fan support with the public backing he has received since taking on a bigger role in the absence of Anderson. A lengthy Q&A over the Sens' official twitter account gave him (literally) more questions than he could answer and has been indicative of how positive the Sens fanbase has been all season. That appreciation doesn't go unnoticed by the guys on the ice.
"It's nice, you want that. That's why you play. You have to wait for your opportunity and now Robin and I are trying to make the best of it. Hopefully that's a big step forward for us and we'll try and keep it going."
As the Sens embark on their second last homestand of the regular season with the playoffs still hanging in the balance, that home ice advantage will come heavily into play. With a battle ahead of them to not only clinch a playoff spot but possibly fight for home ice advantage, Scotiabank Place will remain a tough place to play for anyone who enters it.
With a team that's rolling and a fanbase behind them, they're a tough group to bet against.
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