When the National Hockey League released the Ottawa Senators’ compressed schedule back in January, one stretch of games stood out above all others.
The Senators would be forced to play seven consecutive contests away from the capital while the women’s world hockey championship took over Scotiabank Place, the first six over 12 days without so much as a pit stop at home.
All told, the team would cover more than 6,670 kilometres in the air as it skipped around the Eastern United States, with a trip to Florida thrown in the mix.
For a group expected to be on the playoff bubble when spring rolled around, it was the definition of make or break. Do or die.
So the Senators’ current stat line reads a bit like an April Fool’s joke: Even after wrapping up a five-game homestand with a demoralizing 4-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at home Saturday night, the Senators are 19-10-6, good enough for a solid fifth in the Eastern Conference standings at 44 points.
They nailed down the last playoff spot in 2011-12 with 92 points, which converts to approximately 53-54 in a 48-game schedule.
So now, instead of facing a trip that threatens to eliminate them from post-season contention, even a mildly disappointing stretch would probably be enough to get them close to clinching when they return home Apr. 16 to face the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ll practice in Ottawa Monday before catching a flight to Boston.
Senators winger Guillaume Latendresse acknowledged the trip will be less pressure-packed than it might have looked initially, but also sounded a note of caution about relaxing too early in the schedule.
“For sure, we’re in a good spot right now, but (anything) can happen,” he said. “We still want to get better on the road, we know we can be better, but that’s the game. The NHL is so tight right now that when you go on the road, the little advantages that the (home) team gets, it’s tight.
Latendresse said the Senators could wind up playing seven straight one-goal games on the trip, given league parity and the competition waiting for them.
“I think we’re playing teams that are battling really hard to be in the playoffs … we’re playing Jersey, Philly, we’ve got Tampa that’s trying to come back, so we have a really big trip coming down.”
Goalie Ben Bishop said he was looking forward to spending some quality time with his teammates on the road. That the road swings through sunny Florida is a nice bonus, too.
“It’s going to be a long one, but it’s fun,” he said. “The guys enjoy going on the road … I know the guys with families, it’s a little different, but I know I’m looking forward to it.”
While the Senators have gotten themselves into a good position despite a potentially devastating string of injuries this season, Saturday night’s loss was a timely reminder that the margin for error is a small one.
Coach Paul MacLean said home ice drubbing — which featured a Nazem Kadri hat trick and chants of “this is our house” by the Leaf fans among 20,183 in attendance — was “a little humbling.”
He blamed untimely turnovers for the end result, adding “that little bugaboo that we’ve had in the past of execution in our own end came back and bit us (Saturday).”
Similar mistakes will be magnified in other teams’ rinks, where opposing coaches will be able to use the last change to match lines, and enemy fans will provide a hostile environment for both the Senators and the officials.
Add in the potential for a lack of urgency and Ottawa’s less-than-stellar road record (6-7-3), and MacLean could have his work cut out for him over the coming days.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
The Senators won’t play another game at Scotiabank Place until Apr. 16 against the Carolina Hurricanes, the first of four straight at home. Here’s how their schedule shakes out over the next two weeks:
Senators at Bruins, Apr. 2
Senators at Sabres, Apr. 5
Senators at Panthers, Apr. 7
Senators at Lightning, Apr. 9
Senators at Flyers, Apr. 11
Senators at Devils, Apr. 12
Senators at Bruins, Apr. 15