These are heady days out at Scotiabank Place.
A five-game winning streak at stake with the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs in town? Not a problem for a Senators team that continues to be one of the NHL’s underrated stories.
The boys of October roll on to a new month, carting a six-gamer against the Stanley Cup champions in Boston Tuesday. Who knew a rebuild could be this much fun? (let’s revisit this topic in a month or so). The Senators didn’t just post an October record that some of the league heavyweights couldn’t match (7-5-0 after handling the Maple Leafs 3-2 on Sunday night), the breathtaking way they won many of those games – in the dying minutes, if not seconds, even in shootouts, usually a nemesis — has made the Senators the talk of the town.
And isn’t that’s what pro sport is about? Having a team in town that captures the imagination, regardless of where it sits in the overall standings or may sit in April?
If your daily ventures are anything like mine, you don’t go far without someone commenting on Ottawa’s Cardiac Kids (the nickname is overused, I know, if the trend continues a call will go out for a new handle).
Players have noticed the buzz around town, even a relative recluse like centre Jason Spezza (“I can’t say I see too much of the community, I go to the same two spots every day,” Spezza laughs).
At the rink, though, Spezza can feel it. On Sunday, the Leaf population in the building the noise meter more than a little, but on any given night the crowd has been on, and this is a town better known for sitting on its hands and waiting for something to happen. Fans actually booed a Leaf for a change, with defenceman Dion Phaneuf feeling the heat.
“The crowd reception has been great,” Spezza says. “They’ve stuck with us. Even in games where we’re down (on the scoreboard), if we have a good cycling shift the crowd gives a good ovation. Neiler (Chris Neil) has had a few shifts where we’ve been down and the crowd gives him a good roar. As players, it gives you momentum.”
Nobody on the home side has contributed more mightily to Ottawa’s recent run of five straight than Spezza, one of the NHL points leaders whose third period goals (Nos. 6 and 7 for him) made the latest miracle comeback possible, against the New York Rangers Saturday afternoon. Before that, the Senators stole late wins against Florida and Columbus, showing the sort of poise and resolve usually associated with veteran, not rebuilding, clubs.
What does it all mean for a Senators team not expected to contend for a playoff spot this season? Leave it to that veteran coaching hand, Paul MacLean, to put all this ‘Boys of October’ talk in perspective.
“Let’s see where we are after 20 games, after 25 games,” MacLean said, before the Senators faced Toronto. “We’ve played well for five in a row, but it’s a long season.”
All the more reason to enjoy the surprise blips, if that’s what this is, when they happen. Whatever the month, and regardless of the opponent – tougher games are on the horizon – there is no mistaking Ottawa’s late push regardless of the score on the night. Beyond all reason, the Senators had been outscored in first periods 17-5 but have 21 third period goals to opponents’ 18. They’re just getting warmed up through 40.
“There’s no real answer” to the third period rallies,” Spezza says. “I think it’s just that we have a never-say-die approach right right now. We got embarrassed a couple of times early in the year, we got guilty of maybe letting up a bit in the Philly game, they embarrassed us. I think maybe that message went through pretty clear, that we’re never out of games.
“Once you get a few wins, you start believing in it more and more. Last year we had the problem, every time we got scored on first we felt like we couldn’t win. Now, we feel like when we’re behind we can win. It’s a bit of a belief thing, a confidence thing.”
In this second round of the Battle of Ontario, the Senators outplayed and outshot the Leafs through 40 minutes, nothing like the first entry in Toronto on Oct. 8, when Ottawa fell behind 4-0. This time around, it was about trying to hold onto a slender lead, only the third time in 11 games the Senators have found themselves in that situation.
An unlikely third period goal by Kaspars Daugavins, his career first, and a brilliant third period save by Robin Lehner on Nikolai Kulemin were the latest examples of “everybody contributing,” as Spezza put it afterward. Lehner was the best Swedish goalie on the ice, to be sure, as Jonas Gustavsson fought the puck at times.
“It was a little lucky,” Lehner said of his reaction save on Kulemin, “but I’ll take it.”
The Senators will take their sixth straight. Just another day when they’re the talk of the town.