Warren: Senators enter playoffs with nothing to lose

It’s all gravy now for the Ottawa Senators.

Warren: Senators enter playoffs with nothing to lose

It’s all gravy now for the Ottawa Senators.

Their weekend sweep, coupled with the huge helpful assist from the unlikeliest of sources — the Toronto Maple Leafs — puts them back in the playoffs, a place they didn’t even dare dream about back when training camp opened in September.

Playoff tickets went on sale minutes after Sunday’s 5-1 romp over the New York Islanders.

At the very least, owner Eugene Melnyk will receive an unexpected $2 million bonus as the organization hosts a pair of playoff games. If the Senators extend their opening round series to six games, it’s an additional $3 million. And on and on. The math is simple enough. Whatever the total ends up being, it’s found cash that can be used towards re-signing defenceman Erik Karlsson or discovering how to get Senators fans to show more passion in their own building.

That, of course, is the worst case scenario, in keeping with the expectations that the Senators will be colossal underdogs in the opening round of the post-season, regardless of their opponent.

At this point, it appears as if the Senators are on a collision course with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. When the respective rosters are lined up against each other, it’s no contest.

The Bruins have much more depth at the forward position. The Bruins’ defence is superior. Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas owns Vezina Trophy hardware and a Stanley Cup ring, while Senators netminder Craig Anderson has played all of six post-season games and has yet to win a playoff series.

In terms of intangibles, the Bruins own the experience edge. Bruins coach Claude Julien also led his team to a trio of seven-game victories en route to the Cup last season, while Paul MacLean is a rookie head coach.

Yet when you look at it in those terms, the Senators really have nothing to lose. They weren’t supposed to have even a sniff of the playoffs.

The Bruins, like all defending Cup champions, will face the pressure of winning it all again. Sometimes, the weight of expectations is felt the most at the beginning of the playoffs, especially with the favoured team holding home ice advantage and expected to establish its dominance by winning the opening two games. The Senators, meanwhile, have proven that home ice doesn’t mean much to them. Of their 41 wins, 20 have come at Scotiabank Place, 21 in other buildings, including Sunday’s victory, without Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson in the lineup.

More than all that, though, there’s something about the Senators risk-reward style that makes them potentially dangerous. When they’re at their best, they also score in bunches. During their current four-game winning streak – keep in mind, they’ve seen a pair of back-up goalies and some weak defence corps during that stretch – they’ve potted 23 goals.

Defensively, the Senators are vulnerable. They’ve given up more goals than all playoff-bound teams in the Eastern Conference.

Even though it will be another 10 or 11 days until the playoffs begin, there’s no great secret that the opposition game plan will be to try and prevent Erik Karlsson from skating with the puck. The Senators rivals will hit Karlsson at every opportunity and force him to defend around his net as much as possible, where his lack of strength is a liability. The Senators lack of defensive depth will be put to a test.

The positive for the Senators is that Anderson appears to have recovered well from the kitchen accident which cost him a month of action. What would a Senators season be without a goaltending crisis or two? Anderson is nowhere near the top of the NHL in terms of goals against average – almost double that of league-leader Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues – but he has outplayed the opposition netminder since taking over from the injured Ben Bishop a week ago Saturday, withstanding the surges when necessary.

The Senators’ ability to wrap a post-season spot with three games remaining also allows them the luxury to rest some players who may be nursing an injury or to not overtax key players like Karlsson with too much ice time in the final week of the regular season.

There are considerable issues for MacLean to address in advance of the playoffs. Whether the Senators play the Bruins or not, they will clearly be at an experience disadvantage.

Their discipline has been an issue at times and as Sportsnet analyst Denis Potvin pointed out during Sunday’s broadcast, they must learn to stop whining when they don’t get calls from the officials. If they think the non-calls are bad now, just wait until the whistles disappear completely in the post-season.

They face long, long odds to simply win one series, but as MacLean pointed out following Sunday’s game, “anything can happen.”

WHAT’S GUTLESS AND WHAT’S A CHEAP SHOT?: The nastiness in Philadelphia’s 6-4 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday sets up a potentially explosive matchup between the teams in the opening round of the playoffs next week. For those who missed it, the fireworks started after Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn cross-checked Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby across the shoulders after the whistle. With time running down, Bylsma put his fourth line on the ice and Pittsburgh’s Joe Vitale drilled Philadelphia’s Daniel Briere with a clean, open-ice hit at the blueline. Naturally, fights ensued. Afterwards, Laviolette labelled Bylsma’s move as “gutless.” Byslma countered by saying Schenn’s hit was “a cheap shot.” It leaves me with a couple of lingering questions. What, exactly, did Laviolette expect was going to happen after Crosby was targeted? Secondly, what was Briere thinking, stickhandling through the middle of the ice with his head down and so many big hitters on the ice?

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