It’s been a surprisingly great year for NHL teams based in Canada. The Montreal Canadiens lead the sport with 100 points as they try to build on last year’s Eastern Conference Finals run, the Vancouver Canucks have returned to the playoff scene after misfiring with coach John Tortorella last season, and the young Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets are both currently among the top eight seeds in the Western Conference, though they’re both hanging on for dear life as the Los Angeles Kings surge and begin to breathe down their necks in the standings. The performances of these four teams alone would have been more than enough to excite a nation that saw just one of its teams reach last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. But one Canadian team, the Ottawa Senators, is upping the ante of surprise success to an extent nearly beyond comprehension, all thanks to late-season call up Andrew Hammond.
Much like in the narrative of this year’s Minnesota Wild, the rebound of the Senators began with an act of desperation. Backup goalie Robin Lehner suffered a concussion in a Feb. 16 game, and with starting goalie Craig Anderson already sidelined with a hand injury since mid-January, goalie Andrew Hammond was thrown in to replace Lehner, making his first appearance of the season and second of his career. In his 20 minutes on the ice in that game, Hammond let in two goals on five shots and did not factor in the decision of a 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The loss dropped Ottawa below hockey .500, to 22-23-10 for 54 points, well behind the 8-seed Boston Bruins, who even during the midst of a six game losing streak still remained 10 points ahead of the Senators. It wasn’t necessarily a depressing scene in Ottawa, they were performing as everyone expected them to.
But Andrew Hammond isn’t just defying expectations, he’s obliterating them. He was added to the NHL roster to hold down the fort until the return of Anderson, who was doing well before his injury: a .925 save percentage, 2.44 goals against average, 11.07 goals saved above average, a .576 quality start percentage. Goals allowed percentage minus (GA%-) had Anderson as a well above average goalie with a mark of 88, where 100 is average and the lower the number the better. Hammond, meanwhile, was a 27-year-old career minor-league/college goalie posting marks of 3.51 GAA, 0.898 SV%, and a 7-13-2 for the Binghamton Senators in the AHL. His roster spot was circumstantial, not necessarily earned. Yet.
In Hammond’s first start he stopped 42 of the Canadiens’ 44 shots in a 4-2 win. Then it was a 21/22 save performance in a win over the Florida Panthers. Then Hammond one-upped his hot start: 25- and 35-save shutouts of the Anaheim Ducks and LA Kings, on the road, on back-to-back nights. Most goalies aren’t starting consecutive nights, let alone posting shutouts on the road. The win against the Kings also halted LA’s eight-game win streak. The legend of the “Hamburglar” was born. Hammond then beat the San Jose Sharks and lost to the Wild in a shootout. Since that game, he has not lost. Not once in nine games. Through 16 games, Hammond is 14-0-1, with a .946 SV%, 1.67 GAA, 14.97 GSAA, a 63 GA%- and a remarkable .929 quality start percentage. As pointed out by Bleacher Report, Hammond is the second player in NHL history to allow two goals or less in each of his first 12 NHL starts (this was only accomplished in the 1938-39 season), and the fifth to pick up at least one point in each of his first 14 starts. He won again in his 15th start, leaving him just one game from the all-time NHL record. Anderson has returned, but has found himself in a new role as backup, and has started just two games: a 42 of 46 save win against the Flames and a 19 of 22 save loss to the Bruins.
— Rocket 57 (@Rocket57) March 16, 2015
At first, the Senators had a difficult time catching up with Boston even with Hammond winning every game. Boston completed a five game winning streak and 7-0-1 stretch March 14, bringing them to 82 points, while Ottawa, even after a 10-1-1 stretch, still only had 75 points on their record. But since that day, Boston has lost all five of their games, with only two points in that span, and Ottawa has won all five of theirs. Suddenly, it’s Boston trying to keep up with Ottawa: the Senators are ahead by one point and have one game in hand on the Bruins. Boston has not been anything close to a model of consistency this season, and they have to be sweating with Hammond and the Senators turning up the heat.
What distinguishes Hammond from Minnesota’s imported savior, goalie Devan Dubnyk, is the team surrounding him. The Wild had been to the playoffs in each of the last two years and were expected to be there again, with an even better team this time around. The Senators had no business being in the playoff hunt. Outside of Erik Karlsson, who is this team working with? On paper, it’s not exactly a who’s-who in the NHL. They have two players above 20 goals: Mike Hoffman (26) and Kyle Turris (21). Other double-digit goal scorers include Karlsson (19), Mika Zibanejad (19), Bobby Ryan (18), Mark Stone (18), Milan Michalek (13), Clarke MacArthur (13) and Alex Chiasson (11). Casual NHL fans may not recognize a majority of those names, but–at least recently–they’re getting the job done, like a hockey version of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics.
Diving further into the statistics of these players outside the limelight, advanced possession numbers don’t paint Ottawa as a playoff team either, at least in terms of skaters. The Senators are 18th in Corsi-for percentage, with 50.4 percent of shot chances created by Ottawa in their games. We’ll consider 50 percent to be the number the dividing number between good and bad, though their ranking 18th and not 15th states this isn’t completely accurate. On their team, Ottawa has 10 skaters above the 50 percent mark. Let’s compare that to other playoff teams. In the Eastern Conference, say the Canadiens, Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, Lightning, Capitals and Red Wings are playoff teams (we’ll exclude Ottawa so they can be compared without influencing any averages). In the Western Conference, we’ll say the Blues, Blackhawks, Predators, Ducks, Wild, Jets, Canucks and Kings are playoff teams (the Flames had 0 skaters above 50 percent, and a 0 has a much greater effect on the average than the Kings’ league-leading 18 skaters, plus not controlling the game doesn’t give much confidence for the Flames making the playoffs, so we’ll leave them out for now).
The average Eastern Conference playoff team had 12.43 +50 percent skaters, while the average Western Conference playoff squad had 14.875, for a total league average of 13.73. Non-playoff teams for the two conferences averaged 6.31 skaters. Ottawa’s mark of 10 skaters is 3.69 away from the non-playoff teams and 3.73 away from the playoff teams, so is slightly closer to the non-playoff teams, but with essentially a coin flip to decide their postseason worthiness. If the Kings are unable to catch the Jets and Flames in the standings and we shift the playoff and non-playoff picture, the Senators are still 2.53 skaters away from the postseason average and 2.31 skaters away from the non-playoff teams, closer by 0.22 skaters to the non-playoff region. That makes them over five times more likely to miss the playoffs than if the Kings and Jets are in the playoff field instead. And again, if the Kings and Flames make the playoffs, the Senators are in a similar position, 2.67 skaters from the playoff teams and 2.46 from the non-playoff teams, 0.21 skaters closer to those missing the postseason. So no matter how the playoffs unfold out west, Ottawa ranks inferior in terms of skaters operating in the black of Corsi-for.
The disclaimer that must be mentioned is that some teams are capable of winning in the regular season based almost purely on goaltending. In fact, that’s the case with the Canadiens and Rangers, who rank 24th and 19th in Corsi-for, respectively. Right now, it seems to be the case for the Senators as well.
Erik Karlsson earns a lot of credit for the Senators’ success, as he’s leading NHL defensemen in points and is one behind Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the goals lead, while averaging over 27 minutes of ice time per game and sporting a Corsi-for of 53 percent. He could earn another Norris nomination, though he would be unlikely to win in this year’s deep field. Karlsson’s defensive partner Marc Methot has also been a huge boost to the team since he returned from injury in January. In his 35 games he’s averaged over 22 minutes of time on the ice and is the team’s leader with 55.4 percent Corsi-for. He doesn’t offer much on offense, but he provides shut-down defense, a perfect compliment to Karlsson’s aggressive offensive prowess.
But two defensemen and a group of mostly okay forwards weren’t going to make this frenzied playoff push by themselves, or with even a good goalie in Craig Anderson, apparently. Andrew Hammond and his mind-blowing streak are all-important for the Senators’ success right now. At 27 and with no prior top-level experience, he’s no prospect and might not be a building block for future success. That doesn’t matter. The Senators have stumbled upon lightning in a bottle and are riding their discovery to what was for a long time an unthinkable destination. Hockey is fun again in Canada, as one long-unknown goalie has Hamburglarized the playoff chase and countless fans’ hearts.