It was no time to be counting on a break – certainly not a day after Ottawa declared that Canada is finished with lucky pennies.
Instead, the Ottawa Senators gathered at the Sensplex, their practice facility on the western edge of town, and declared it was up to them to win, not others to lose. If they were to get into the 2012 playoffs, it would have to be on their own merit, not on the bad fortune of other teams chasing the same spot in the postseason.
This was unexpected talk to hear in the nation’s capital, given that earlier in the month it had generally been accepted as a given that the Senators would make the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The question then was simply which team they would meet.
But something happened to confidence in the past couple of weeks in this country. Two of the teams most assuredly out of the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, went into alarming collapse, while two that seemed potential playoff teams, the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets, struggled to a point where the postseason remained mathematically possible but realistically improbable.
Which left the Senators holding up the Eastern Conference hopes while the Vancouver Canucks remained among the elite of the Western Conference. From cocky chatter of as many as five of the Canadian teams qualifying a few months earlier, the hopes had fallen to two teams with one of the two not a lock as the final week of the regular season arrived.
Had Ottawa fans been told back in October, when the franchise rebuild was launched under new coach Paul MacLean, that after 77 games the Senators would have 88 points and hold down seventh place, they would have been astounded. Rarely had expectations been lower heading into a season.
Now, however, the thought of falling to ninth, and out of the playoffs, is considered equally impossible, given the surprising success the team has enjoyed under MacLean.
It could happen, though. Friday night the Buffalo Sabres missed their chance to reach 88 points when they fell 5-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And Saturday, with the Senators scheduled to meet the tough Philadelphia Flyers in the afternoon, the Sabres drew Toronto in an evening match, while the Washington Capitals, also trailing Ottawa by two points on Friday, drew the Canadiens.
Then, on Sunday, the Senators will play the New York Islanders in another afternoon game – a match that most would say the Senators should easily win, given the Islanders’ disappointing season.
And yet, history has shown that teams well out of the playoffs are never to be taken lightly at season’s end. With nothing to lose, they are under far less pressure. With jobs on the line, they are often inspired. Expected to lose, they often win when it least matters.
“We were that team last year,” points out Jason Spezza, the Senators’ leading scorer. In his opinion, the Islanders can be “a dangerous team to play against” in the season’s final days.
The Senators meet the Flyers, Islanders, the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, Boston Bruins on Thursday and next Saturday close out the season against the New Jersey Devils.
“Five games in eight days,” captain Daniel Alfredsson says. “[But]we’re not looking for teams to lose. We’re hoping to take care of it ourselves.”
“You want to play important games,” Spezza says. “If we can keep piling up points it limits the other teams.”
“We don’t want to say it was a great 75-76 games,” defenceman Chris Phillips adds. “We have to push even harder now to solidify, or back up, what we’ve done.”
All the players, and coach MacLean, claim not to be glued to their televisions these days, but all will still concede that they find themselves checking the scores daily. “You just know where you are,” MacLean says.
“Every night it’s changing,” Phillips says. “When you think you’ve found some ground, just as quickly it closes up.”
It has closed up considerably over the past couple of weeks, as the Senators shifted from aiming at winning their division to surviving among the top eight Eastern teams that will start the playoffs shortly.
MacLean says that, in some ways, he welcomes a situation where the season winds down as if teams fighting for those final spots are already in the playoffs. The Senators’ position, after all, is no different from that faced by the Sabres and Capitals: if you want to get in, you have to win your way in. There’s simply no other option for any of the three teams fighting for those two treasured spots.
“It’s going to be close right to the end,” Spezza says.
“These are the real games,” MacLean adds, “when we really find out about players.
“This is when it really counts – and you find out who you can count on.”