It’s easy to write off the Ottawa Senators – squeaked into the playoffs, matched up against the regular-season conference champions, deprived of their captain and emotional leader.
And yet the Sens are deadlocked in their series with the New York Rangers as they prepare for Game 5 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday evening.
Appearances can be deceiving, but the visitors seem to be having a lot more fun than the home team.
There is an unmistakable looseness to the Sens room – some of that may have to do with the fact Alfredsson skated in Ottawa on Saturday morning and has made progress in his recovery from concussion.
But more encouraging still is the fact the Sens haven’t really missed a beat since the 39-year-old went down in the second game of the series.
“It just shows the character of our group, I think. You can take out your captain and guys have been able to step up and minimize the impact of him being gone. Obviously we’re a better team with him in the lineup than with him out of it, but it’s a great testament that guys have stepped up and added extra minutes at a tough time of the year,” said centre Jason Spezza. “It just shows how our group’s been all year, I don’t think we expected to have a big drop-off because Alfie missed a game, but we would like to have him back.”
The next to step up could be 19-year-old right winger Mark Stone, who took a regular turn at the Senators’ morning skate.
The Winnipeg-born Stone, who scored 123 points to finish second in Western Hockey League scoring this season, joined the team last week and practised with the full squad on Friday.
“I’ve never been to New York City, it was definitely a culture shock for me, I’m used to small towns and cities in the West,” said Stone, who said he wandered around Times Square with his mouth open on Friday evening.
“Unbelievable,” he said.
It’s been quite a ride for Stone, who was an unheralded sixth-round draft pick in 2010 who has vastly improved his skating and his all-around game.
The 6-foot-2 power forward played for former Senators coach Cory Clouston with the Brandon Wheat Kings and made a start turn at the most recent world junior championship, where he led the bronze medal-winning Canadian team in goals.
“I came to Ottawa with pretty low expectations, I just wanted to be around the playoff atmosphere and if I can get in that would be something special for me,” he said. “Looking back to the day I got drafted, if you were to say I’d be in the NHL playoffs at 19, no kid would turn that down.”
Stone is no sure thing to play, but coach Paul MacLean said “if we choose to use him I think he might help us on the power play.”
Either way, the Senators are taking a relaxed approach to what will surely be a raucous encounter at the self-proclaimed “world’s most famous arena.”
“I wouldn’t call it a comfort level, we’re confident that we’re in the series, we’ve had success in the building, but we know the fans are going to be amped up tonight and we have to be prepared for them to have a good start,” Spezza said. “But we definitely feel we belong in the series and that we can win the series, now we’re down to a two-of-three, we’re in a good spot, as they are, and we’re excited to play the game now.”
Spezza also referenced the fact that Ottawa has been able to spread its ice time across all four lines, giving its star players a chance to rest.
The theory is that will pay off as the series wears on – Spezza will certainly hope that’s the case, he has just two assists to show for the first four games, winger Milan Michalek has just one goal, as does superstar defenceman Erik Karlsson.
“We knew this was going to be a long series coming in, so your plan is to try to wear the other team down and you hope that your depth can carry you through those tough moments and if you get into overtimes and longer games,” said Spezza.
Remarkably, the Senators haven’t led in any of the four games – twice they’ve come from behind to beat the Rangers in overtime. That’s something they would like to change.
“It would definitely help, by getting the lead it doesn’t mean you’re going to win the game, but getting the lead forces the other team to take some chances and make some mistakes. Our focus is to get the lead, we haven’t had one all series, we’d like to get off to a better start than we’ve had,” said Spezza.