When the lockout ended and the NHL announced a condensed 48-game schedule, mayhem was forecast.
And still, we’re astounded by the developments one third of the way through the season. Namely:
* The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks chewing up a tough Western Conference as though it were AHL competition.
* Before Wednesday’s games, the gap from first place to eighth in the West was 12 points. In the East, it’s six.
* While only one was widely forecast to get in, all three eastern Canadian teams currently sit in a playoff position: the Montreal Canadiens flirting with first, the Toronto Maple Leafs playing the unlikely role of road warriors, and a Senators team hanging on despite missing its top three scorers, Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson among them, from last season. Can it last?
* Among those on the outside of the top eight looking in – the New York Rangers, one of the pre-season favorites, along with three others that made the playoffs last season: Florida, Philadelphia and Washington.
* The Buffalo Sabres, picked by so many to be a much-improved team, are a dog’s breakfast. Not surprisingly, longtime head coach Lindy Ruff took the fall with his job on Wednesday, his message tired, his team slow.
All in all, this moveable feast of mediocrity called the Eastern Conference may yet be the land of opportunity to teams that might otherwise have no shot at qualifying for the postseason. When Karlsson tore his Achilles heel, compliments of Matt Cooke’s seeing-eye skate blade, the Senators were instantly rated a lost cause for the season.
Maybe they still are. Maybe they wake up one day and realize they have no business contemplating playoffs without a top pairing (or at least top four) in defenceman Jared Cowen; without Karlsson, who was raising the bar on Norris candidacy until he was injured; without No. 1 centre Jason Spezza and without Milan Michalek, whose knee injury is becoming a concern.
But as long as goaltender Craig Anderson is keeping the Senators in every game with Vezina-type protection, and the team sends out a pesky band of rookies with a few choice veterans sprinkled in, they’re not admitting to any lost cause.
Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the New York Islanders was a case in point. Senators head coach Paul MacLean admitted his group was the second best team on the ice, but survived. Mostly because of Anderson.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson said afterward he believes a top eight finish is a reasonable goal, despite the dark cloud of injury lingering overhead.
“I do,” Alfredsson said, when the question was popped. “I mean, it’s so many games in so short a time and if you can get something good going you ride the energy, the positive wave you’ve got going.”
Presently that “positive wave” is based on a 2-1 shootout victory in New Jersey Sunday and a steal of two points on Tuesday. With the goaltending by Ben Bishop against the Devils and by Anderson, who frustrated the Isles, the Senators like their odds in these coin-toss games, where outcomes are often determined by one shot, one bounce, one save.
Most nights – the careless play against the Islanders being the exception – the Senators make the appropriate effort and push. Given their circumstances, they should be frightened into making it.
“All we know is, on paper maybe we shouldn’t maybe be at the top or in the playoffs but we control what we do,” Alfredsson said. “We’re going to go out there and give a gutsy effort every night. I think we all know we need four lines going hard.”
As the captain says, a lot of nights it is not going to be pretty. Both the Sens and Isles were charged with 16 giveaways. Chances are that a repeat performance will mean zero points on Thursday against a Rangers team that should be cranky after losing 3-1 at home to the Canadiens.
If the Rangers are half as miserable as the current mood of head coach John Tortorella, they’ll still be grumps.
The Senators will need to tighten up and crank up the kind of hunger game they displayed in New Jersey, where the visitors wanted it just a bit more after feeling they deserved a better fate against the Maple Leafs the night before.
With seven or eight rookies in the lineup on any given night, the Senators have to accept the good with the bad.
“I think we make mistakes out there sometimes, that maybe if you had more skill or more veteran guys out there that you wouldn’t,” Alfredsson said. “But I think we work to overcome that.”
With a 2-1 record in games since Karlsson was injured in Pittsburgh, and a 6-5-1 mark since Spezza’s back gave out on Jan. 27 against Pittsburgh (morale of story: avoid Penguins), the Senators have had some practice treading water.
“The coaching staff has done a great job in that we’re not looking for excuses,” Alfredsson said. “We have what we have and we’re going to give everything we have.”
There’s a handy slogan for the stretch run.