Senators have breathing room in battle for playoff spot

A point saved is a point earned.

Senators have breathing room in battle for playoff spot
Ottawa Senators goaltender Robin Lehner (40) makes a pad save on a shot by Winnipeg jets Evander Kane (9)during third period NHL hockey action Ottawa Senators and the Winnipeg jets in Ottawa Sunday March 17, 2013. Ottawa beat Winnipeg 4-1. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

LONG ISLAND, New York – A point saved is a point earned.

That’s an apt way to look at the Ottawa Senators’ stretch of hockey between St. Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.

Despite experiencing a laundry list of injuries to key players – including the losses of goaltender Craig Anderson and defenceman Erik Karlsson – and enduring a four-game losing streak, the Senators have still managed to open up considerable breathing room in the battle for a playoff spot.

Before NHL games Monday, the Senators sat fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, a healthy seven points ahead of Tuesday’s opponent, the ninth-placed New York Islanders.

Now, consider that on Feb. 22, the day after Anderson went down with his sprained ankle, the Senators were seventh in the East, five points up on the ninth-placed Tampa Bay Lightning.

Back on Feb. 14, when the Senators were digesting the news they had lost Karlsson to a season-ending Achilles injury a night earlier, the Senators sat in sixth position, only three points up on ninth-placed Tampa.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, showing the value of the extra points the Senators picked up in overtime and shootouts, even when ultimately losing games.

Immediately after completing the weekend sweep by knocking off the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 Sunday, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said “it feels great” to taste victory without being pushed to extra time yet again.

Before Sunday, the Senators had played in 11 consecutive games decided by a single goal. At the same time, Alfredsson acknowledges that every point matters, regardless of how it’s accomplished. Eight of the Senators past 12 games have gone to extra time, with the Senators winning four and losing four. When you add it up, the Senators have picked up 12 points from those games.

“As long as you get points, I think we all agree it doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as we find a way to stay in games, give ourselves chances,” he said. “I think everyone would like to win by three every night and we’ll take it this time, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen too often down the stretch here.”

None of it would have been possible without the goaltending.

Goaltenders Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner shared the weekend wins – Bishop won 4-3 over Buffalo in overtime Saturday before Lehner closed out the door on Winnipeg in Sunday’s victory – continuing a remarkable season-long goaltending performance. In 29 games, the Senators have received only two weak netminding performances: a 6-4 loss by Bishop to Tampa Bay Jan. 25 and a 5-4 defeat by Bishop against Toronto on March 6.

In case you’ve for forgotten, Anderson had an 8-4-2 record, a 1.49 goals against average and a .952 save percentage when he suffered his ankle injury. Bishop owns a 5-4-0 mark, with a 2.57 average and .924 percentage. Lehner hasn’t lost in regulation since being recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League, now 2-0-4, with a 1.90 average and .946 percentage.

“(Lehner) has been getting us points, that’s the biggest thing,” said Alfredsson. “We’ve been really, I would almost say spoiled this season with our goaltending and that’s one of the biggest reasons we are here today.

“We’ve had struggles, at times, to score goals and they’ve kept us in games, getting us into overtimes and winning overtime sometimes, so (Lehner and Bishop) have done an outstanding job for us. It’s nice to be able to give (the goaltenders) a little bit of a cushion for once.”

The play of the goaltending has also inspired confidence in the defence in front of them. Senators coach Paul MacLean says Sergei Gonchar – now riding a seven-game point streak, with nine assists during that span – Chris Phillips and Marc Methot has displayed their leadership since the Karlsson injury. They’ve carried first-year players Andre Benoit, Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba.

Their ability to play, to show poise under pressure, has been a good learning curve for Gryba and Wiercioch and even for Benoit, as a veteran AHL defenceman, who has really come up and held his own.”

After going scoreless in his first 18 games, Wiercioch has scored four goals in his past seven games. Gonchar is routinely topping the 26-minute mark per game and broke the 30-minute barrier in last Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Montreal.

The Senators aren’t home free in the quest for a playoff spot just yet. Yet their position looks pretty good right now. Many teams now have 20 or fewer games to make up lost ground in the shortened season. When the teams below the Senators in the standings meet each other, one team is going to lose at least one point, possibly two, reducing their chances of climbing the ladder.

Tuesday, the Senators can deal their own blow to the Islanders, before returning to Ottawa for a five-game homestand.

Alfredsson insists the key is maintaining focus on the short-term, taking each game – and each point – as it comes.

We’re just going to look to the next day and the next game,” he said. “We’ve done really well at home so far and it’s been a huge part of our success and now I think we’re starting to play better on the road.”

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