Hear that noise in the background?
That would be the hoofbeats of NHL horses coming up behind the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference. Still just background noise, but getting louder.
At the all-star break, the Senators were one of the true feel-good stories in hockey, based on how this young team, of which so little was expected, played through the first 52 games. Despite dropping the final three games of their pre-ASG western swing, the Senators were solidly entrenched in sixth place, five points ahead of Toronto, New Jersey and Florida.
Quite suddenly the gap has closed, and it is becoming clear Ottawa still has some work to do to ensure this remains a feel-good story in April. A one-goal loss to the Boston Bruins in their first game back from the break created the Senators’ first four-game losing streak of the season, a comment in itself on how Ottawa has been a remarkably consistent presence in the East. The challenge, as the games grow in importance and intensity, is to maintain similar consistency down the stretch.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson, his feet once again solidly on terra firma after a week of dream-like fan adoration during the All Star Weekend here, believes the answer for the Senators is quite simple. Dance with the one who brung you, as the old expression goes – keep the approach that worked for the first 50 games (minus a few of those early losses).
“We’ve been too consistent for too long to not believe in what we’re doing,” Alfredsson says. “So I think we’ve got to be cautious. We can analyse it too much sometimes, just because we’ve lost four in a row – oh, we’ve got to start winning here. We’ve got to stick with it, we know what we have to do to be successful. We can be better and we have to be better to win, so that’s where the focus is.”
All but five Senators – Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Kaspars Daugavins and Bobby Butler – have been involved in NHL playoff races before, and the five newbies soaked up a lot of AHL playoff experience during Binghamton’s Calder Cup run last season.
So, when head coach Paul MacLean and his assistants speak to the players about the stretch drive, these are mostly reminders about what to expect on the road ahead.
“As the season goes on, month by month, it gets harder, it gets harder, it gets harder,” says Alfredsson, using repetition to drive home the point. “It’s tough to score goals, games are closer. And I think that’s good for us, we’ve got to learn to deal with that, a lot of different situations. It pushes everybody.”
After 16 years in the league, with time spent in first place and last, and most others in between, Alfredsson is as familiar as anyone with the NHL stretch drive. And yet, even he was given pause when, after watching a movie the other night with his wife, Bibi, he noted several scoreless games as he checked the scores, halfway through three games and in the first period of another.
“Scores are tightening up, every team is tidying up, every mistake becomes bigger,” Alfredsson says.
“And the way we play, that can be good; we force other teams to make mistakes.
If we can just be a little bit smarter.
“We do a really good job of creating chances offensively for ourselves, and even in the Boston game, before we gave up their second goal we could have had our fourth, we had so many good chances against a really good defensive team.”
Ottawa’s captain calls it a “fine line between us creating offence and giving up mistakes, but if we can find that line we’ll be really good.”
They have been really good, beating teams they should beat, posting a winning record home and away.
Those 60 points earned by the all-star break are money in the bank, precious savings on which to draw, meaning the club can get away with being not quite as good over the final 29 games. But those savings will evaporate if the Senators don’t re-establish themselves over the potentially life-giving five-game homestand that begins tonight versus the New York Islanders.
Saturday brings yet another back-to-back scenario with the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, but Ottawa is 3-1 in the series so consecutive games don’t seem to be an issue. Alfredsson says players feed off the arena energy from Leafs-Senators games, and fatigue is less of a factor.
All of the teams seeking to catch the Senators have played fewer games than Ottawa’s 53, but if the Senators can pick up a little more than a point per game the rest of the way, they should be fine.
Grabbing at least three wins in these five at home would be a good place to start.