Senators gearing up for final push toward playoffs
'Dog days' now in past, Ottawa ramping up intensity for last five weeks of season
|Goaltender Robin Lehner raises his hands in celebration after the Senators blanked the Bruins 1-0 in Boston on Tuesday night. For the 20-year-old Lehner, it was his first career NHL shutout (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images).
Now, the Ottawa Senators say, it's time to get seriously primed for the big drive to the finish line.
With the beginning of March less than 12 hours away, the stretch run to the Stanley Cup playoffs is about to begin in earnest — for the Senators and for every other team aiming to be there when the puck drops on the battle for hockey's biggest prize in a little more than five weeks.
"The trade deadline passes and there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's the end of the season," Senators head coach Paul MacLean observed Tuesday night following a 1-0 road triumph over the Boston Bruins that had a playoff feel to it at plenty of times. "Now there's a goal there. The dog days are over and there's something to look toward.
"Now that the deadline is over, everyone knows there's only so many games to go and everyone's getting ready for the end of the season. That has a lot to do with the focus and intensity we played with (against Boston)."
Given that it's quite possible the two teams could meet in the opening round of the playoffs, Tuesday's triumph was a major statement for the Senators. They'd lost eight straight games to the defending champions, including all four previous meetings this season. Now the Senators know they can win a closely-fought battle of wills and they did so at TD Garden in Boston, never the friendliest of venues for a visiting team.
"This is one of the teams that you're going to have to play really good against to win (in the post-season)," said defenceman Erik Karlsson, whose first-period power-play goal proved to be the game winner. "In a playoff series, it's going to be even harder to beat them and I think we really wanted to show we can compete with them."
Last Saturday night at Scotiabank Place, it was Karlsson giving the Senators an early jump just 70 seconds into their most recent matchup with the Bruins. But Boston took charge the rest of the way, building a 4-1 lead before a couple of late Daniel Alfredsson goals made it interesting.
"The last game, we played them at home and I think we came out a little too cautious," Alfredsson said after Tuesday's win. "We were waiting for something to happen. (Last night), we took charge right away. We really played well for the first two periods in a tough building. So we controlled our destiny a lot better and our goalie played extremely well."
That goalie would be 20-year-old Robin Lehner, whose standout play this week is helping ease the loss of starter Craig Anderson to injury in a major way. The native of Goteborg, Sweden, backstopped the Senators to a 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Sunday, then notched his first career National Hockey League shutout in blanking the Bruins.
"The team played so good all three periods," Lehner said in sharing the shutout with his teammates. "They came at us in the third and put a lot of pucks to the net and some pressure, but I think we were real solid. I felt calm and comfortable again ... I'm very happy.
"It was a great win and we needed this."
Alfredsson heaped praise on Lehner for the way he's handling this current opportunity.
"A lot of things have happened for him," said Alfredsson. "Anderson getting injured and getting a chance. We signed another goalie (Ben Bishop) and he's probably thinking 'does this mean my chance is over?' But all you can do is control your own destiny and he's done a good job so far.
"It's a lot of fun seeing him (do that) and in practice, he's an extremely hard worker, too."
After enduring a rough patch just before and after the NHL all-star break — the Senators went winless in seven games — they've turned the corner in a major way. With a 7-1-1 run, Ottawa (34-23-8) has pushed past the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils into fifth place in the Eastern Conference standing, although both rivals do own games in hand.
Perhaps more significantly, the Senators own an eight-point edge over the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets, and both have the same amount of games (17) remaining in the season. That's a rather solid cushion heading into the stretch drive, but MacLean said his team won't take anything for granted until the job is finally done.
"We're still growing and building our team and our foundation," said MacLean. "Yes, we're having some success and yes, we're pleased with where we are in the standings. But I don't think we're in a position to sit there and say with any confidence 'we're here' or we're locked into anything. We just try to continue to take it on a daily basis and a game-by-game basis, and keep trying to get a little bit better."
Around the boards
Even with just a single goal in Beantown, the Senators' three hottest players all managed to extend their point streaks. Karlsson has 18 points (7-11) in eight games, while centre Jason Spezza is on a 10-game tear (8-13-21) and Milan Michalek is 3-3-6 during a four-game streak ... Spezza ranks fourth in the NHL scoring race (28-43-71), while Karlsson stands sixth (15-51-66) and is tops among all defencemen by a 23-point margin over Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers ... Bishop, obtained from the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, made a rather auspicious debut for the Ottawa organization on Tuesday night, turning aside 41 shots as the Binghamton Senators whipped the Eastern Conference-leading St. John's IceCaps 5-1 ... The Chicago Blackhawks make a rare visit to Scotiabank Place on Friday night (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200). Fewer than 1,500 tickets remain for the game.