It’s that time of year when fans and media grow restless for the NHL playoff dance to begin.
This is especially true for teams that have more or less locked up one of the top eight spots in either conference.
When two such teams meet at this time of the year, with the possibility that they could even form a first round matchup, well, hockey players start to hear the questions they hate the most. Questions about how their team matches up against a certain other team.
Not many will touch the question about a preferred matchup for obvious reasons, although it would be refreshing to hear:
“We’d really rather play Team X because, you know, their defencemen are little more than pylons and their goaltender couldn’t stop a basketball.”
Nobody from the Ottawa Senators or any other club is likely to provide such bulletin board material as that in the weeks ahead, but at least some will admit to paying attention to the races and potential matchups.
“I think everybody is aware of it – the standings are right behind us here in the room,” Maxime Talbot of the Philadelphia Flyers told Tim Panaccio of CSNPhilly.com. “You look at it every day. You follow teams even more when the season is winding down. Who’s 8-9-10 (in the standings) and what the match-ups could be.”
With the New York Rangers in Ottawa, representing one of many potential first round matchups (Ottawa-Boston is the more likely at the moment),
players were bound to be asked how they stack up against opponents like the Rangers and Bruins.
While the Senators got a break, not having to face Henrik Lundqvist on Thursday, Ottawa has had success against the Rangers this season (2-1 before Thursday), and are just 1-4 against Boston. Does that make the Rangers the preferred first round opponent? Probably, and not just because of the record but because of the Bruins depth and grit.
Senators centre Jason Spezza doesn’t put much stock in regular season records against potential playoff opponents.
“I think it just shows how close the league is and how close the competition is,” Spezza said, prior to the fourth game of the season against the Blueshirts. “We could be 0-3 against the Rangers in the three games we’ve played them and we probably could’ve won a few more games against Boston than we’ve won. That just shows the nature of how close those games have been with those two clubs.”
The way Spezza sees it, Ottawa matches up well against physical teams like the Bruins, Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. In the Bruins and Rangers, especially, a young Senators team finds a decent role model.
“When we look at teams we want to play like, we look at Boston and New York, the way they play 60 minutes a night,” Spezza says. “They don’t win every night but they give a pretty consistent effort and that’s the team we’re trying to be, too.”
Considering the style of play on the menu from game to game, most of the Eastern Conference teams cook from the same book. They’ll send a player in deep on the forecheck, but otherwise try to chip pucks deep and use a defensive strategy in the neutral zone to create turnovers. Ain’t fancy but . . .
Spezza sees a lot of style similarities among the Bruins, Rangers and Senators.
“We work hard, we skate hard, they do the same thing,” he says. “We roll four lines for the most part. Our team has a real good understanding of what guys’ roles are, and you look at their teams they have similar situations. I don’t know if that makes a good matchup or a bad matchup, we don’t really think about that kind of stuff as much.”
No, but judging by the excitement level at Scotiabank Place for most of Thursday – shots were 10-5 for New York through 30 boring minutes, and 17-7 after 40 – fans might prefer a more adventurous first round opponent than the Rangers.
Although they hail from the west and wouldn’t meet any eastern opponent until a final, the Chicago Blackhawks dazzled fans in Ottawa with their puck control game last week. The Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks play a similar style.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see a team like that in a series.
“We’re not as flashy, but the way we play can be just as effective against an offensive team,” Spezza says. “We may not have the puck as much but I think you can make a team like that make mistakes and capitalize on those mistakes. You play a team that is free flowing in a playoff series you hope that our structure and patience will kind of wear them down.”
In the east the style is more chip and chase, hit and grunt. No one worries about extra marks for finesse.
With less than a month to go to sort out matchups, Ottawa should have strong incentive to aim for a modest leap to sixth place and a date with whatever team survives the Southeast, the division with the least.