Senators get the message

The contrast couldn’t have been starker at Scotiabank Place Saturday afternoon.

Senators get the message
Tampa Bay Lightning centre Tyler Johnson looks back at Ottawa Senators goaltender Robin Lehner after a backhand shot during third period NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Saturday, March 23, 2013. Ottawa beat Tampa Bay 5-3. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

The contrast couldn’t have been starker at Scotiabank Place Saturday afternoon.

At one end was an Ottawa Senators team that has overcome what should have been a devastating string of injuries to key players by embracing the high-pressure, hard-skating style demanded by coach Paul MacLean.

At the other, a Tampa Bay Lightning group that had the National Hockey League’s top goal-scorer (Steven Stamkos), fourth-leading point-getter (Martin St. Louis) and an effort level that suggested the players wanted to get bench boss Guy Boucher canned as soon as possible.

And so it was that on Sunday morning, the Senators quietly went back to work at the Bell Sensplex while Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was explaining why he’d just given Boucher his walking papers.

“I’m not satisfied with the direction our hockey club is going,” Yzerman told reporters in Winnipeg, where the Lightning played Sunday night. “This isn’t a reaction, a desperate act to try to make the playoffs, although that is still our hope.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. The Lightning looked like a lock to make the postseason after bursting out of the gate this shortened season. The Senators, meanwhile, watched as their No. 1 centre, No. 1 defenceman, No. 1 goalie and No. 1 winger each fell to injury.

Instead of crashing as expected, they continued to climb the Eastern Conference standings thanks to win after gritty win. The latest was the rout-turned-nailbiting 5-3 decision over the Lightning that solidified their hold on the fifth seed.

And now, in this improbable season, it appears only the most improbable sequence of events can prevent a second consecutive postseason run in the capital.

According to sportsclubstats.com, a web site that mathematically tracks teams’ playoff chances, the Senators now have a 98.7 per cent probability of qualifying for the National Hockey League’s second season.

With three more home games this week, starting Monday against the New Jersey Devils, they have an excellent chance to improve those odds.

That they nearly blew a 4-0 first-period lead against the Lightning was a useful reminder of what can happen when a team takes its foot off the gas, however.

“When momentum swings in the game, it’s very difficult to stop it or to get a hold of it, and that’s when the structure of your team can help you slow the momentum and get the game back under control,” MacLean said Sunday.

“And I think we did that a little bit, but we didn’t all do it as a group, and that’s the part that we learned from the game.”

Goalie Robin Lehner, who will set a new career high for appearances in an NHL season the next time he touches the ice in a game situation after earning the win against Tampa, agreed.

“It’s very hard for a team,” he explained. “We were up 4-0 the whole game and with 10 minutes left, we were like, ‘yeah, it’s a won game.’

“Then they got one, incredibly, they got a lot of momentum, and it’s hard to stand against that kind of momentum sometimes,” Lehner continued. “And then all of a sudden they got the second one, and all of a sudden every shot is so much harder than it is and every play for one of our players in our zone would be so much harder than it is. And it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill.

“But you know what? We stood tall in the last minute, (Daniel Alfredsson) scores a huge goal for us and … two points.”

Ever cognizant of the heavy workload that comes with a compressed season, MacLean wrapped practice in just a shade under 30 minutes. It was enough to time to remind his charges what has gotten them where they are, however.

“The schedule is heavy, so we want to make sure we just keep the motor running and make sure we’re moving the puck and make sure we’re skating,” MacLean said. “But at the same time we want to make sure we have energy for the games.

“(Sunday) was just making sure we’re moving the puck and passing it quickly and, if we can not overhandle the puck, it makes it faster, and it’s something we’ve been working on as a team all year, really,” he said.

And as for that 98 per cent chance of making the playoffs?

Lehner shrugged.

“We’re setting a good pace right now, we’re winning games, we’re playing well and that’s right now,” he said. “The reason for that is how hard we work and how we play, and if we let that go, anything can happen.

“But if we just keep on going the way we’re doing, it’s looking good.”

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