OTTAWA — There have generally been a few approaches to hitting the Stanley Cup playoffs in stride.
In Plan A, a team performs like game show students and reaches for the top. It tries to win the conference or division, and use home ice advantage to its, well, advantage.
A second option, not by choice, is to get hot down the stretch, steal a lowly playoff position and wreak havoc once in the dance. A great example of this was the 2005-06 edition of the Edmonton Oilers, who won three of their final five games to nab eighth place in the Western Conference that spring, then fairly breezed through the first three rounds past Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim to reach the Stanley Cup final.
Only the Carolina Hurricanes could stop them, a 112-point team out of the East that season.
Who, if anyone, will play that role this time around? The Buffalo Sabres, winners of seven of their past 10 and lurking two points out of a playoff spot heading into Tuesday’s games, have a chance to be that dangerous low seed this spring.
And what about the Ottawa Senators? At the moment, they’re part of the tweeners in the Plan C group, clustered between third and seventh, with a shot to move up and win a division or, to settle more or less where they are.
Does Ottawa have the kind of motivation and fire a team could use to generate momentum heading into the playoffs? Staff and players think so, largely because of the edge the Senators have been able to maintain most of the season.
This group is too young and too thin, early in the rebuilding process, to grow complacent.
“I think it’s the same mentality we’ve had all year,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson, prior to boarding the train to Montreal for a Wednesday date with the Canadiens. “We haven’t changed our philosophy, we’re trying to get better all the time.”
By emphasizing the steps the Senators have to take to match more established NHL rosters, game by game, head coach Paul MacLean and his staff have the ears of their players.
“For us, more than anything, it’s a reminder we’ve got to skate,” Alfredsson says. “When we’re skating, we’re making things happen. We’re creating offence, we’re getting back on the backcheck.”
Alfredsson likes the Sabres, who beat the Senators in a Saturday shootout, as an example of a club that is getting hot by using a similar approach. They keep moving.
“If I could say one thing, that would be it,” Alfredsson says. “Skate, and don’t get cautious. We’ve got to keep pushing.
“Buffalo, the way they play, they’re an aggressive team, if they get momentum, they’re a team that can win seven, eight, nine, 10 in a row. But if you’re a team that’s really patient (read: sits back) I don’t think you’re going to have the same kind of streaks as a skating team that’s aggressive.”
Ask MacLean about momentum heading into the playoffs, while having a relatively “comfortable” playoff position and he takes on a puzzled look and the great moustache starts to twitch. The man is just not yet ready to accept accusations of success.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable, I know that,” he says. “We try to address it on a daily basis, just stay in the moment, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
For a coach with 11 games still to play, including one against the loose, nothing-to-lose Habs, it’s too early to talk about hitting the playoffs in stride. But there is the chance of catching the Boston Bruins atop the Northeast Division. If nothing else, the pursuit can keep a team sharp.
Alfredsson likes to think the recent light schedule — only five games played through the first 13 days of March — has given the Senators a chance to rest and work on things that might show up when the heat gets turned up next month.
The schedule, Alfredsson says, has “enabled us to relax, and be more focused when we come to the rink.
“Sometimes you don’t even realize what you’re doing wrong out there, but the coaches have done a really good job of reminding us where we want to be and where we want to go. It’s a work in progress.”
People in the organization keep saying that, but if this reno project exceeds expectations any further, the work in progress might turn out to be a work of art.
“We want to finish the season, first,” MacLean says. “Get to that 82nd game and see where we are.”
Don’t we all want to see that.
Alfredsson says it all comes back to being hungry, and on the move.
“I hope we continue the way we’ve played, and we’re able to overcome maybe not having the depth in the lineup a lot of other teams have,” Alfredsson says. “We all skate and we all try to create offence through that.”