On the heels of a disappointing 2015-16 campaign, basically no one outside of the Ottawa area gave the Senators a chance to make the playoffs this season, let alone make a serious Stanley Cup run, and rightly so. The team was coming off a fifth-place finish in the Atlantic, had question marks throughout its lineup, possessed the 20th-highest payroll in the NHL, had just fired its coach, and even took a Hail Mary by acquiring much-maligned defenceman Dion Phaneuf from Toronto last February. From the outside looking in, things didn't appear good.
However, with Guy Boucher fitting in perfectly behind the bench, Phaneuf playing some of the best all-around hockey of his career as he slots in comfortably on the team's second defence pairing, and captain Erik Karlsson having yet another Norris-worthy season on both sides of the puck,the Senators improved by 6 wins and 13 points to finish second in the Atlantic and just captured their first playoff series win since 2013. They are legit contenders now, defying analytics and metric forecasting while using the inspiration found all around the organization as a tool to play well-beyond expectations.
Aside from Karlsson, who was the team's only All-Star selection the past two seasons (and played the first-round series against Boston on a broken foot, while still producing hockey porn), the Senators boast no superstars and minimal name recognition. Goaltender Craig Anderson, who posted a .921 save percentage and a sub-two GAA over the six-game set against Boston, is the next closest thing.
Despite terrible family circumstances, Anderson, who posted a 25-11-4 record with a better-than-career-average save percentage (.921) and GAA (2.28) with 5 shutouts during the regular season, was a rock all year on the ice and a source of rally for his teammates off of it, as he battled in the crease while his wife fought cancer. His wife, Nicholle, announced in October that she was diagnosed with cancer, causing Anderson to miss various chunks of games throughout the season to be by her side as she endured a rigorous routine of radiation and chemotherapy.
With Craig's performance on the ice and his wife's unwavering support despite her circumstances, this year's Bill Masterton Trophy finalist and Nicholle have been praised all year for their ability to take on the fight while being able to just as quickly turn their attention back to hockey when needed. The impact is unquantifiable, but it's there, and GM Pierre Dorion summed up the influence Anderson's gutsy performances have had on the morale of the team after its Game 6 win on Sunday.
"When the person you love the most on Earth is going through what they're going through and his ability to block it out, to focus on his teammates, I don't know how I can put that into words," Dorion told the Associated Press. "He comes here and he's as good a pro as I've ever seen in my NHL career."
While Anderson took care of business at one end, another unlikely hero took care of his at the other. Clarke MacArthur banged home the overtime winner in Game 6, capping off a whirlwind couple of years for the 32-year-old, who suffered four major concussions in 18 months, was ruled out for the season, and seemed like a long shot to ever hit NHL ice again. MacArthur shocked everyone in hockey and lifted his teammates as he resumed training and returned in April to play the team's last four regular-season games and all six against the Bruins, where he notched two huge goals and averaged over 14 minutes of TOI.
"Clarke is a big inspiration for us. The two big goals he scored in these playoffs is part of special moments. What happened [Sunday], I don't know how many times in my career as GM that we'll have moments like we lived yesterday," Dorion said after the Game 6 win.
Ottawa has gotten a lot of production from a couple other sources, too. Assisting on MacArthur's series-clinching goal was his good friend Bobby Ryan, who had two game-winning goals of his own while matching his career playoff-high of seven points during round one after the least productive regular season he's ever had. Two other unlikely heroes, Mike Hoffman and Derick Brassard, chipped in 4 goals and 11 points between them against Boston and have proven the Senators are way deeper than they appear on paper.
Every postseason needs a feel-good story. To find this year's, look no further than the expectation-defying Ottawa Senators, who get the New York Rangers next.