Those wild and crazy, playoff-bound Senators returned to Ottawa on Tuesday, unlikely regular season heroes.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson was being cheered as soon as his face appeared on the scoreboard screen, pre-game. An “Alfie!” chant broke with 11 minutes to go in each period — get it, No. 11 — not a ripper chant, but hey, even fans are saving a little something for the playoffs.
Thanks for the season, fans at Scotiabank Place were saying.
Thanks for a season that extends beyond Thursday’s final home date, versus the Boston Bruins, beyond Saturday, when the Senators play game No. 82 in New Jersey.
A relatively easy 5-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Sunday clinched a playoff spot, in the most bizarre way — with Alfredsson watching from the sidelines and No. 1 centre Jason Spezza sitting at home with a newborn child.
Alfredsson had the flu, of course, a last minute scratch, while Spezza was summoned in the middle of the night when his wife, Jennifer, was about to deliver the couple’s second baby. Nicola Patricia Spezza was born at 6:15 a.m., or slightly past the time her daddy was boarding the first available flight, 6 a.m., loosely headed for Ottawa.
“It was definitely a bit of a mad dash to get back, a milk run to get home,” Spezza says. “I didn’t get home in time for the birth, but I did get home in time to see them at home, to be there with my wife and Nicola and I was happy I made the trip.”
Hockey players enjoy the perks of direct charter travel. No such deal at 3 a.m. from Long Island, when the rest of the team is tucked in at the out of town hotel. Spezza had to hustle to the airport, grab a commercial flight to Ottawa via Washington, arriving home at about 9:30 a.m.
Once home, and able to see that his wife and second daughter were healthy and safe, the Senators assistant captain was just as determined to get back to Long Island to join his teammates for the 3 p.m. game, if it had been humanly possible.
“We couldn’t get a charter set up,” Spezza says. “If I could have got a charter, I would have come back right away.”
Instead, he made the best of it. Home, not alone.
“I’m not gonna lie, it was a good day, sitting on the couch, with a new baby, watching the boys play the way they played,” he says, of the playoff-assuring Ottawa victory.
“It was a pretty satisfying day for me. One of the most satisfying days I’ve had in a long time.”
Will there be more satisfying days ahead for Spezza and his mates? Hard to say, but it’s been awhile since the Senators have approached the playoffs with their fans tickled to death their team is there. In 1997, the Senators ignited this town with its first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs since the original Senators of another era.
Since ’97, the Senators have been in the postseason all but two seasons, so the novelty is not there now, but fan appreciation of a mostly young-ish, hard-working group does take you back to innocent beginnings. The leaders in the room will ensure the team doesn’t take its eye of the ball now.
“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, making the playoffs, but we feel there is a lot of work left to do,” Spezza says. “We’re not just happy to get into the playoffs, so these next few games can be building blocks towards a successful playoff. So, that’s how we have to approach it.”
Head coach Paul MacLean feels that way, encouraging his players to continue to drive through these final games, regardless of their significance in the standings. Wisely, he is asking his veterans, especially, if they need rest. Against Carolina, Sergei Gonchar sat out, resting what MacLean called a lower-body “bo-bo.”
When someone asked if he planned to give starting goaltender Craig Anderson a game or two off to rest, MacLean didn’t miss a beat: “He’s already had a month’s rest.”
That would be while Anderson was healing a badly cut finger from late Febrary to late March. He may yet sit a game, regardless, but there will be a few days off after game 82 before the playoffs begin, likely the following Thursay for the Senators.
Alfredsson, for one, says to count him in for the final games.
“We want to keep pushing,” Alfredsson says. “It’s a lot of fun when everybody’s playing hard and contributing. We don’t want to let down and (have to) search for our game again.”
With their berth clinched, recreating what Alfredsson called the “desperation” of the previous four games, was not easy against the Hurricanes, who received strong, playoff-type goaltending from Cam Ward.
The Senators won’t have such motivational issues next week, when the new season begins.
“Internally, from day one, we’ve believed we could make the playoffs,” Spezza says. “That we belong here. That’s what’s given us the drive.”