So, what do you think of the National Hockey League playoffs so far?
Leave it to Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to frame the stretch run to the post-season in easy to understand terms. Melnyk, speaking before the Senators’ unlikely 8-4 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday, suggested that the team’s final seven regular season games were akin to a best-of-seven series: win four and you’re in.
If you buy Melnyk’s logic, the picture looks a lot brighter today, with the Senators now needing to win three of their final six, including Monday’s game against a Winnipeg Jets team that just won’t go away and saves its best for home ice. If the Senators need to play .500 the rest of the way to make the playoffs, the Jets pretty much need to roll a Lucky Seven – winning their final seven games – to get in.
Yet it already feels like there’s a playoff atmosphere in the air here. Maybe it had something to do with last week’s record heat wave, which made it feel like hockey in June, but fans’ emotions are alternating from one extreme to the other based on the results of single games. It’s how fans generally respond to wins and losses during a best-of-seven playoff series: with so much passion invested in every game, every result becomes magnified.
After Friday’s 5-1 loss in Montreal, many were convinced that the Senators were done and buried, that the relative inexperience of the lineup had finally caught up to them and that they didn’t have enough energy to right the ship to hold off Buffalo, Washington and/or Winnipeg. There was a large groundswell of belief that number one goaltender Craig Anderson, who looked shaky against the Canadiens, wouldn’t be able to re-discover his form during the final two weeks of the season.
Now, after an eight-goal outburst and a confident-looking relief appearance by Anderson – Ben Bishop, Saturday’s starter, suffered a lower body injury in the second period – the tide has turned back the other way. Conventional wisdom Sunday was that the goaltending is back, along with the slumping offence, which had scored only six goals in its previous five games. The power play, which had gone on an extended March Break vacation, finally produced a pair of goals.
Senators coach Paul MacLean certainly felt a change in the mood among his players before flying out of Ottawa Sunday afternoon.
“That confidence of responding to that adversity is a real good building block,” MacLean says. “It doesn’t guarantee us anything, but it gets us back on positive footing and gives us some traction heading into Winnipeg on Monday.”
MacLean says most teams go through peaks and valleys and he’s optimistic Saturday’s victory against a Penguins team which hadn’t previously lost in regulation in five weeks is a turning point.
“For us, we’ve been a little streaky as a team, and that’s not uncommon for any team, and usually when we win one, we win a few. Sometimes when you lose a couple in a row, you figure ‘we’re never going to win’ and then when you win one, it’s like you’re never going to lose again.”
Perhaps the roller-coaster comes from the relative inexperience of the Senators lineup. Nine players on the current roster have never played in an NHL playoff game. Kyle Turris has played in four post-season games, Matt Gilroy five, Erik Karlsson and Matt Carkner six each.
Nick Foligno suggests that it’s easier to deal with every situation when you’ve been through it before and that part of the slump in the past couple of weeks was due to players being unfamiliar with the circumstances.
“We have a lot of new faces, guys who, for them, this is their first experience in trying to push for the playoffs,” says Foligno, who starred on a second line with Daniel Alfredsson and Turris on Saturday. “It’s natural. It’s something that comes with experience. There are older guys in this room that have been around. It’s always a learning curve for new faces and sometimes you don’t realize you are tightening up or trying too hard, but maybe that’s the case. But I think now that we’ve had our learning curve, hopefully it’s going to get better and guys understand the way we need to play.
“That’s definitely the way we played (Saturday).”
Now this could all swing back the other way if the Jets can successfully rally around a crowd which has backed them to a 23-11-4 home record this season. It is, effectively, a Game 7 for the Jets and the Senators realize it.
“We know we’re in a dogfight,” says Jason Spezza. “We’ve got to be ready for a team trying to pick up a four-point game from us. We’ve talked about how, now that we’re in the stretch run, it doesn’t matter if you’re scoring one goal or eight, you just go out and find a way to win games, find a way to pick up points. It’s the time of year when points are all that matters and teams are trying to catch us. We’ve just got to try to pick us many points as we can, however we can.”