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Daniel Alfredsson and the Ottawa Senators hope to tie up their first round playoff series against the Rangers on Saturday. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Blair Gable (Blair Gable/Reuters)
Daniel Alfredsson and the Ottawa Senators hope to tie up their first round playoff series against the Rangers on Saturday. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Blair Gable (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

Senators lament case of bad playoff nerves Add to ...

“They’re sick of practice. They’re sick of coaches. We’re sick of them sometimes.”

New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, April 12, 2012

On April 13, 2012, the Ottawa Senators practised. They practised hard – “focused,” one of them said – on the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers, tall windows along one side overlooking the Hudson River.

The Senators were not there as tourists, however, as they plan to return to New York City in a week’s time and, they hope, see things differently than the team did on its first postseason visit.

If the New York Rangers players and coaches are sick of practices, then the Ottawa Senators cannot be feeling good about Game 1 of their best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series. They lost 4-2 on Thursday, though that score is flattering to the flat Senators, who, by team-wide admission, had a six- to eight-minute stretch at the end of the second period and start of the third where they were awful.

“We lost our game a little bit,” said centre Jason Spezza, the team’s top scorer during the regular season. That would be an understatement. There were, on the other hand, small stretches in the game where the Senators dominated but could not beat the Rangers’ splendid goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. The two goals they did score came late when the Rangers, having already won the match, lost their concentration.

“I know my players don’t like my practices,” former NHL coach Harry Neale once said, “but that’s okay, because I don’t like their games.”

Senators head coach Paul MacLean surely felt somewhat the same, but was more diplomatic. “A lot of times in the game, we played real well,” MacLean said after the hour-long workout, “but we got nothing out of it.”

The players had, or were offered, multiple theories on what went wrong, the most common being that the Senators are a young team with many players new to the NHL and their nerves got the best of them.

“If you weren’t nervous, there’s something wrong,” goaltender Craig Anderson said. “It’s what you dream of as a child, to play in the final, and this is the first step.”

Nerves may have been part of it, but the real story was the team’s inability to set free their main weapons: speedy little defenceman Erik Karlsson and slick-passing forward Spezza. Karlsson, who led all NHL defencemen in scoring by 25 points in the regular season, was a non-factor. His most significant moment of the night came when his head was punched four times by 6-foot-7, 244-pound Brian Boyle. The matchup – think of Britain attacking the Falkland Islands – earned both Boyle (deserved) and Karlsson (undeserved) two-minute penalties for roughing.

“Guys have been targeting Erik all year,” Spezza said. “That’s just the nature of the beast.” If the Rangers are going to key on Ottawa’s best, he said, then Ottawa will need to key on New York’s best, such as captain Ryan Callahan: “We’ve got to do a better job of challenging him.”

Karlsson was excused from Friday’s practice, as was captain Daniel Alfredsson and the Senators’ main enforcer, Chris Neil. All were given extra time to rest and, presumably, heal.

Ottawa knows it needs Karlsson, the team’s MVP of the year. They are working on shifts in strategy that will see him trying to carry the puck less out of his own end and more of the team dumping and chasing pucks, hoping to regain pucks by a strong fore-check. Karlsson will be told to shoot more from the point – he had only two shots Thursday – in the hopes that the Rangers, who love nothing better than to block shots, will play the shot until he has them sprawled on the ice and can dance about as he works his magic.

MacLean thought that Karlsson did not use his speed and skating ability as he can. Whether it was nerves or, far more likely, the tenacious checking of the Rangers is debatable; what isn’t debatable is the need for Karlsson to be at his best if the No. 8 seed Senators are to have any chance against the top-seeded Rangers.

Another strategy under discussion is to re-form the top line with Alfredsson back playing with Spezza and winger Milan Michalek. MacLean has often put the three back together during spurts in games, but concedes he will have to consider juggling his lineup for Saturday to take this possibility into consideration.

MacLean also wants to see far more physical play out of the Senators, who did not shy away from the powerful Rangers in the regular season as Ottawa won three of four matches.

“We’d like to make them earn their goals a little more than they did,” MacLean said.

“We hope to come out of here and get the split,” Spezza said. If Ottawa can win one of the two opening matches, then the Senators would return home for Games 3 and 4 “and put the pressure on them. We feel like we can play better.”

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