Scanlan: Sens wild card status a blip before facing Maple Leafs

If fame is fleeting, then so is glory.

Scanlan: Sens wild card status a blip before facing Maple Leafs
Kyle Turris of the Ottawa Senators skates against Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period of NHL action at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, December 07, 2013. Photo by Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen

TORONTO – If fame is fleeting, then so is glory.

For the first time all season, your Ottawa Senators boarded a plane on Friday afternoon while owning the status, privileges and responsibilities that come with being an Eastern Conference wild card team.

A little pay dirt after four months of grinding.

Not that it lasted. On the Senators night off, Ottawa lost its wild card spot due to the outcomes of other games, including a victory by Carolina and a shootout game between Detroit and Washington (ultimately won by by the Red Wings on a shootout goal by former Senators winger Patrick Eaves).

Even with Ottawa bumped, Saturday presents one of the more intriguing editions of the Battle of Ontario, with the Leafs holding down third place in the Atlantic Division, six points ahead of Ottawa in a packed conference.

“It’s incredible,” Senators winger Bobby Ryan. “You win a couple, you’re looking at the 8 seed, if you go the other way, you’re looking at the 12th seed.”

Given the stakes, the timing is right for a rivalry to emerge from hibernation.

“This is a chance to put e’m (the Senators) back a long way,” Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul told reporters in Toronto Friday. “You want to bury teams that are behind you.”

Fightin’ words, those.

A few weeks back, both the Senators and Leafs appeared to be in some trouble, and when things go wrong in Toronto, they go off the rails, with bold headlines to match. For example, in a three-game span from Jan. 4-9 the Leafs were outscored 18-5 by the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes, not exactly league powers.

But in their past 10, the Leafs are 8-1-1, including a two-game winning streak (Tampa Bay, Florida).

Similarly, during a week that captain Jason Spezza called the most important of the season, the Senators have won two straight, with regulation victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets, on the road, and Tampa Bay Lightning, at home Thursday.

With the table now set, are the Senators finally ready to beat the Maple Leafs in a meaningful game?

According to TSN Radio statistics guru Ian Mendes, the Sens are 2-10-0 over the past past five years in matchups with the Leafs during the months of February, March and April. Of course, some of these games were more meaningful than others, depending on the standings at the time, but they don’t even include the spring horrors of four consecutive playoff series losses to Toronto between 2000 and 2004.

So, after shootout losses to the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Oct. 5 and in Ottawa on Dec. 7, the pressure is on the visitors to remind Leaf Nation that there are two sides to the Battle of Ontario.

Bobby Ryan, who ended a scoring slump with a goal and an assist in the 5-3 victory over the Lightning, is getting the hang of this rivalry.

“It’s always been a good matchup, they’re two good skating hockey clubs,” Ryan said after the victory over the Lightning. “We’re in a better frame of mind, I think, than the last couple of times we’ve played them.

“We’ve got some confidence, and the last time we played them we were kind of in shambles. Hopefully this is something we can roll with, take it on the road with us. We’ve got three tough games coming up.”

Oh yeah, that. After Toronto, the Senators are in Pittsburgh Monday to face the Penguins and then right to St. Louis Tuesday for a game against the Blues.

Head coach Paul MacLean would like to see how his team measures up against those titans.

“I think we’re excited about the opportunity,” said MacLean, who gave his team a day off from practice Friday. “The way we’re playing, we’re going to give ourselves a chance.”

Spezza, whose personal performance has shown marked improvement over the past few games, believes the added confidence is showing in the team’s play, and not just by adhering to the usual “structure” everyone talks about.

“We’re probably playing a bit looser with the puck, too, making good plays and finding each other,” Spezza said. “Some of the D-men are playing really great and getting the puck out well. So, we’re definitely in a better state than we were earlier.”

Like a lot of people, the captain has noticed that winning games at this time of year is the best defence against the cluster of teams still in the hunt for a wild card or top three divisional position. Get the points you can, Spezza says, and expect that certain other teams are going to get them, too. But some will fall back.

“When it gets down to the last 10 or 15 games, you want to put yourself in a position to be watching the standings and make a run at it,” Spezza said.

“We have six games in nine days going into the break. That’s 12 points, and we want to try to take a good chunk of those and go into the break feeling good about our team game.”

How quickly things can change, in the standings and in temperament. Defenceman Marc Methot, a healthy scratch last week, finished plus four after scoring an early goal in a dominant outing. No. 3 was sky high, after the events of this week.

“Anytime you can play with a little confidence, it can only help you,” Methot said. “It’s better than coming off two losses. As a team right now we’re starting to find our identity and it’s coming along pretty well. I’m excited, that feeling from last year is starting to creep back into the room and it’s a good one.”

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