PHILADELPHIA — For Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean, this entire season has been about building a foundation, a style of play the team can carry into its future.
He has never looked further ahead than the next game.
One of his most oft-used lines is, “We’re going to play 82 games and we’ll see where we are at the end of 82 games.”
He doesn’t pay much attention to the standings — “You just know where you are,” he says — and he can’t be tricked into looking ahead at the playoffs.
However, MacLean does say that these final five games, beginning Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, will tell him more about his team than the first 77.
These are the games that test the resolve and the character of players.
“I think when you go back to the start of the year and we were 1-5 after giving up two touchdowns, if you would have said in the last five games we’ll be playing for an opportunity in the playoffs, we all would have fast-forwarded and jumped to that place,” he said.
“From Day 1 we’ve said we’re building a foundation to win with this organization, and we’ve laid a lot of real good stones, through adversity and through success.
“And these last five games, for me, these are the games where we can really find out about players and how you play when you’re under the gun and under pressure.
“These are valuable, valuable building blocks for our organization … because this is when it really counts and you’re going to find out who you can depend on.”
It may seem that words like that only ratchet up the pressure on his team, but it’s only the fact of the matter.
Last year at this time, the Senators were playing out the string after general manager Bryan Murray pulled the plug and started rebuilding. It wasn’t fun.
Now they control their destiny. They don’t need help from other teams to back into a spot. If they win their games, they’re in. If not, it’ll be one of the longer summers of their lives.
Chris Phillips jokes that he’d rather not be in this position. He’d rather have a playoff berth locked up and be playing for position. And, if not for some misadventures against the Montreal Canadiens over the past three weeks, they may well have been playing for position now.
But they’re not. They’re playing just to get in, so this weekend’s afternoon games — 1 p.m. Saturday against the Flyers and 3 p.m. Sunday against the Islanders — could well be defining moments.
It will be a matter of finishing what they started, said Phillips.
“It’d be nicer to be playing games to see where we fit in and maybe home-ice (advantage),” he said. “But to see where we are and how quickly we’ve been able to turn things around (after last season), we want to continue that.
“We don’t want to be saying it was a great 75, 76 games. We have to push even harder right now to back up what we’ve done all year long.”
The Flyers embarrassed the Senators 7-2 in their sixth game of the season. Since then, the Senators have picked up three of four points from the Flyers, losing 3-2 in overtime and beating them 6-4.
But the Flyers have to be regarded as one of the conference favourites. Even with all of their injuries, they’ve poured it on offensively. It’s also difficult for visiting teams at the Wells Fargo Centre.
“If you don’t play tight defensively and manage the puck well, they’ve got a lot of offensive skill,” Daniel Alfredsson said. “They can take advantage of you, so it’s going to be a good challenge, not dissimilar to our last two games against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg. They both play real offensive games.
“Hopefully we can do a good job, get the lead again and make life a lot easier on ourselves.”
The team’s weeklong break, which ended with a 38-minute practice on Friday, left the players refreshed. It was their reward for playing so many games in the first half.
Maybe more than any of his teammates, Alfredsson is looking forward to these final five regular-season games. This is what it’s all about. He’d rather have this pressure than the emptiness of last spring.
“It’s a great time of the year,” he said. “Spring is here. The weather’s better. This is the time of year you want to be playing important games.
“It’s a lot different than it was last year, and even two years ago. This is fun.
“We’ve gone through adversity and now, hopefully, it’s a time where we come together and play our best hockey.”