The way Jason Spezza and the Ottawa Senators see it, their six-game road trip, which starts Tuesday night in Toronto against the Maple Leafs and includes a stretch of six games in nine nights, will determine if they are worthy of the NHL playoffs.
"All we've done is get ourselves in the mix right now," Spezza said after the Senators' game-day skate. "There's still a lot of hockey to be played.
"This next stretch of games is what will really separate the teams that will make the playoffs and the ones that [won't] We've done a good job to this point. The work starts now."
A good job to this point has the Senators second in the Northeast Division with 56 points, three behind the Boston Bruins. Since the Christmas break the Senators, who almost no one picked to make the playoffs this season, are 8-2-1 going into the Leafs game, which has them fifth in the Eastern Conference, seven points ahead of the hot-and-cold Leafs.
The expectations for the Senators were low because general manager Bryan Murray broke up last season's roster at the trade deadline when they fell out of the playoff race. Veterans were dumped and several youngsters like Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Kyle Turris, Bobby Butler were added.
Along with young players like defenceman Erik Karlsson who were already on the roster, the remaining veterans like Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek were revitalized.
"We knew we could surprise some people but to be as consistent as we have been, I don't think we figured we could do that," Alfredsson said. "But we've grown. We've worked at it. We know it's going to get harder and harder but it's been fun to this point."
The hard part begins with the Leafs, as the game is the second of back-to-back games on consecutive nights. On Monday, the Senators lost 2-0 at home to the Winnipeg Jets.
An oddity in the schedule is that each of the six times the Leafs and Senators play this season, it is the second of back-to-back games for the Senators in two nights. So far, though, they have a 2-1 record against the Leafs.
"You get used to it," Spezza said. "We're professionals. We've all played back-to-back. We've got lots of guys who played in the American [Hockey]League last year and they play three-in-three [three games in three nights]"
The Senators called up two prospects from their AHL farm team, forward Andre Petersson and defenceman Mark Borowiecki. Head coach Paul MacLean said they will play at some point on the road trip but he is sticking with the same lineup that played the Jets. Craig Anderson will start in goal for the 10th consecutive game.