The year of the NHL lockout was supposed to morph into the year of the rivals.
It doesn’t show. Nearly one quarter of the way through their condensed 48-game schedule, the Ottawa Senators have mostly met up with relative strangers on the road to a 5-3-1 record.
With the schedule restricted to in-conference games only, it seems astounding the Senators have only faced one Northeast Division rival to this point – splitting their two games against the Montreal Canadiens.
In a normal year, the Senators usually kick off the first weekend of the season with a Battle of Ontario matchup agains the Toronto Maple Leafs, but this year? Ottawa doesn’t see the blue-and-white forces until Feb. 16 and then it’s an overdose: three meetings in 19 days between Feb. 16 and March 6.
The Senators don’t see their division rival from Boston until Feb. 28 – Game 21 of the season.
Oddly enough, Ottawa meets the Bruins and Maple Leafs more than any other team this season, five times each, compared to four games against other Northeast clubs, the Sabres and Canadiens. They face Southeast and Atlantic Division teams three times each. Playing Western Conference teams is so last year.
To get off to the good start they did, the Senators beat up on teams outside their division in the first couple of weeks, handling the Winnipeg Jets and then the Florida Panthers, twice.
It could be a recipe for success – winning games outside the division and playing at least .500 within, although losses to the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning spoiled the party. A simpler formula: win more than you lose, regardless of opponent.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said Monday he hardly notices the color of other jerseys, the games are coming so fast and furious in this shortened schedule. Who can see the forest for the trees?
In the torrent of games, the old divisional flavour has been lost more than a little, Alfredsson said, when he was asked about getting fired up to play a division rival like Buffalo on Tuesday.
“Normally you do, I can’t say you do now because it’s just another game,” Alfredsson said. “It’s not like you have time to think, ok, Buffalo comes in now or Boston or Toronto. There’s just so many games, you know each game is important, every game is within the conference.
“If it’s in the division, it’s maybe a little bit more important but at the same time every game is a battle and I don’t feel any different (if it’s a divsional game), especially this year.”
He’s right, of course. Divisional games are only “more” important insofar as competing for a division title, which comes accompanied by a top three seeding assured. Otherwise, it’s the eight seedings within the conference that matter for a playoff berth.
So far, the Senators are 1-1 against divisional teams, which is to say, the Montreal Canadiens, the one divisional opponent Ottawa has faced.
With a little luck, and better officiating, the Senators might be 2-0 against Montreal, or at least have three of four points. Instead, an overzealous goaltender interference call negated a third period goal by Andre Benoit in the third period on Sunday, preserving the Canadiens 2-1 victory.
The loss triggered a shift in the standings that brings home the significance of a mini downturn in a 48-game season. At the start of play on Sunday, the Senators held down fourth in the conference, ahead of fifth-place Montreal. By day’s end, the Canadiens vaulted past the Senators, who fell all the way to a tie for 6th with the victorious New Jersey Devils (New Jersey gets 5th by virtue of playing fewer games).
With so many games in so few days, the opportunity to rise and fall is exaggerated. Already, the Senators jolt out of the gate has been mitigated by a simple two-game losing streak.
Fortunately, there is no time to mope over refereeing or a tight loss at the Bell Centre. The Senators get right back on the horse Tuesday night against the division-rival Sabres, the start of a four-game homestand that screams opportunity.
At this point, each of these games is against a team with a losing record – Buffalo, Carolina, Winnipeg and Buffalo again. Win-able games.
“It’s always nice to play at home and sleep in your own bed,” Alfredsson said, after the two-game swing to Carolina and Montreal. “We hope we can make the most of this week and continue climbing.”
Winger Chris Neil still thinks of divisional games as “four point nights,” in terms of the swing in the standings.
“They mean a lot and you’ve got to be ready to go,” Neil said. “Buffalo coming in, they’re a team that’s had a couple of bad bounces, bad luck lately so it should be a good game.”
Indeed, both teams are riding two-game skids. Something has to give.
“We have to put the past couple of games behind us and move forward,” Neil said. “It’s a good opportunity to gain some ground.”
Having scored just once in the past two games, the Senators are dealing with the loss of centre Jason Spezza, especially on the power play. Not surprisingly, Neil sees the solution in more “dirty goals” from in front of the net (officials willing).