Young Senators face steep learning curve

When it comes to the value of experience in the NHL playoffs, one image springs immediately to mind. It was a picture splashed across the front of the Citizen sports section on April 20, 2007: Pittsburgh Penguins stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, all wearing faraway stares in the Penguins’ dressing room following their first-round defeat to the more-experienced Senators.

Young Senators face steep learning curve

When it comes to the value of experience in the NHL playoffs, one image springs immediately to mind.

It was a picture splashed across the front of the Citizen sports section on April 20, 2007: Pittsburgh Penguins stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, all wearing faraway stares in the Penguins’ dressing room following their first-round defeat to the more-experienced Senators.

Indeed, their first taste of the NHL postseason was an eye-opener, as the Senators rolled over the Penguins in five games. From there, the Senators went on to their one-and-only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

In the opening 10 minutes of that first game at Scotiabank Place, the Penguins were under siege as Crosby, Malkin and Staal received their welcome to the NHL playoffs moment.

Clearly, the young trio learned from being humbled. The Penguins have since won the Stanley Cup and been to the finals on another occasion — they returned the favour by sweeping the Senators in the first round of the 2008 playoffs — with their big three centres all playing major roles.

Now, the Senators are on the other side of the fence.

They are underdogs, due in large part to their NHL playoff inexperience. Among the team’s forwards, Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, Kaspars Daugavins, Jim O’Brien, Rob Klinkhammer and Zenon Konopka haven’t played a single playoff game. Kyle Turris has played in four postseason games, while Zack Smith and Jesse Winchester have been in only six and Nick Foligno has a mere 10 games under his belt.

On defence, Jared Cowen’s next playoff game will be his first. Matt Carkner and Erik Karlsson have each been in six postseason contests and Matt Gilroy has skated in five.

In net, Craig Anderson has seen action in only six games, while Ben Bishop is a raw rookie to the postseason experience.

As the old saying goes, there’s no substitute for experience. Veterans Sergei Gonchar (118 games), Daniel Alfredsson (107 games), Chris Phillips (97 games), Chris Neil (74 games) and Jason Spezza (46 games) can talk about it to the uninitiated, but ultimately, players have to live through postseason action to understand it.

In this situation, however, the players will use whatever background they have to help them adjust.

The fortunate part for many is that seven of them — Greening, Condra, Butler, Daugavins, O’Brien, Smith and Cowen — have fresh memories of winning the Calder Cup as American Hockey League champions with Binghamton last spring.

“We are inexperienced in the fact that we haven’t played in the NHL playoffs, but we do have playoff experience,” says Condra. “It was a mental grind. We learned a lot, especially in last year’s first round. Even if you’re down, you can get right back in it. We had some crazy series, where we took it to seven games, where we swept. There were some emotional games and it does take a lot out of you. Hopefully, we can use that to our advantage.”

Binghamton rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against Manchester to win their opening round series in seven games. How’s this for responding to pressure? All four Binghamton victories came in overtime.

“We played 23 (playoff) games that were hard-fought games,” says Greening, who has now played 188 regular-season and playoff games in the past two seasons. “There was a lot of travel, a lot of long days.

“That’s something that’s got to be taken into account. I think playoffs are playoffs. You’re going to get into rough games, tough games, games where you have to play through injuries at any level. To be able to go through more than 20 games like that is something special.”

Greening says Binghamton players learned about poise, including when to push hard and when to stay patient and in control. Smith agrees.

“That is definitely going to be benefit a lot of us who were down there,” Smith said. “For me, it was the first championship I’ve ever won and teams want players that have been there. I learned that you have to control your emotions a lot better, too. It’s a seven-game series and you can’t get carried away.”

Just the same, the newcomers to the NHL playoffs will lean on the veterans, just as they have throughout the regular season.

Alfredsson’s advice is to try and weather the storm for the opening 10 minutes as best as possible, while also keeping in mind that they’re in the playoffs because they’ve had success doing things right during the regular season.

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