Scanlan: Sabres come to Senators’ emotional rescue

Timing is everything in hockey, including tapping into that precious, combustible fuel – emotion.

Timing is everything in hockey, including tapping into that precious, combustible fuel – emotion.

In their game against the Senators this week, the St. Louis Blues wasted a degree of their emotional reserves in the pre-game warmup, and at the opening faceoff, threatening to do nasty things to Ottawa centre Zack Smith.

Smith? He was unfazed – even when Blues enforcer Ryan Reaves lined up out of the position for the opening faceoff so he could challenge Smith to a fight at centre ice.

The Blues were upset about a hit from Smith on Alex Steen back on Dec. 16. Retribution was the order of the day, even if St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock told us before the game there would be no payback.

Now, Smith would have been happy to fight Steen, the player who felt wronged in this situation, but says Steen didn’t say a word about it all night. He let Reaves do the talking and Smith wasn’t about to fight Reaves, a one-dimensional, eight-minute-per game player.

“If I thought it was a bad hit, or I took advantage of someone, then I would (fight),” Smith said. “I’ll be accountable for that, but not in that case. And with a guy like Reaves – that isn’t a good tradeoff for us.”

Smith feels if his open-ice hit on Steen was dirty, he would have heard from Brendan Shanahan of the NHL’s player safety department.

And then Smith said something quite interesting, about how the Blues had unwittingly done the Senators a huge favour. They stirred a slumbering beast, an exhausted hockey team that had flown in from a game in Pittsburgh the night before.

“We were talking after the game – that was a mistake they made,” Smith says. “You have a team that’s on the road, playing back-to-back games, I don’t know if you want to do that because it wakes up a team.

“Some of the best games you play are emotional,” says Smith, who survived the early threats to play his usual, sound two-way game. “When guys are going to come after you, it kind of gets your mind into it. You’re more aware. They definitely tried to bully us.”

And that brings us to Thursday’s matchup with the Buffalo Sabres, last in the NHL and possibly last in ability to stir passions in the Senators.

For their final home game before the Olympic break, the Sens were going to have to manufacture some energy for this one. Gumption was not going to come naturally to a team that arrived from a St. Louis snowstorm just in time for Wednesday breakfast. Their sleep patterns were in disarray for the day or so prior to facing the Sabres.

So, maybe the home side could get excited about facing USA Olympian Ryan Miller and former Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers?

Umm, well, no. Miller sat this one out. His next start in goal will be in Sochi, Russia. Myers is hurt. Ditto for Linus Omark and Marcus Foligno.

On this night of the new drinking game – name a Sabre – the Senators were going to have to talk themselves into motivation. With the help of the head coach.

Paul MacLean, noted winger Bobby Ryan, was sure to remind the players of previous letdowns following emotional victories, “so we don’t come out and drop a dud.”

In the end, the Senators used their superior talent to outlast a hard-working Sabres team. A game that should have been a layup, was instead one of survival and good fortune, a 3-2 win on a late goal by Milan Michalek. Disaster avoided. On to Boston for game 59.

“It’s that time of the year, where there’s really no excuse, regardless of who you’re playing against,” said defenceman Marc Methot.

Methot figures there’s not better motivation than the Olympic break, which begins after Saturday’s game in Boston against the Bruins.

“The way I see it is, it’s good to empty the tank now,” Methot said. “We’ll have plenty of time to recover. We’ve had a pretty rough road schedule this month so far. We got in real late the other night, so all I’m looking forward to is a good nap.”

After Saturday, napping could get out of hand.

SPEZZA: GOT TO BE ME

Incredibly, Jason Spezza’s goal in St. Louis, his 15th on the season, was his first at even strength since Nov. 24.

“I’m happy to score (five-one-five) so I don’t have to talk about it,” Spezza said, laughing.

What we’ve seen this week – the return of the flair — may be the end of the experiment of trying to make the captain more defensively responsible.

“I am what I am as I player, I think I’ve gotten better at certain aspects of the game,” Spezza says. “At times this year, I think I’ve tried to be too much of somebody that I wasn’t and it affected my game so, I have to play my game.

“As a player, you have to find your confidence and believe in yourself.”

So, expect more of Spezza unplugged from here on out.

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