NEWARK, N.J. -- In one dressing room there were some optimistic members of the Ottawa Senators saying the slate is wiped clean, that their three-game losing streak heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs doesn't matter because next week they'll get a fresh start to a new and more important season.
Down the hall inside the home dressing room there were celebratory members of the New Jersey Devils, 4-2 winners against the Senators on Saturday at Prudential Center, talking about their season-ending six-game winning streak, about how they're playing their best hockey at the right time -- and how it does matter because it's the perfect way to go into the playoffs.
"I guess you try to put your own spin on it," Devils captain Zach Parise told NHL.com, "make yourselves feel good about it no matter what."
The fact is that both the Devils and Senators had to focus on themselves, using whatever spin they felt was necessary, because they couldn't talk about the team they will be facing in the first round of the playoffs. That was not determined until both the Capitals and Panthers were done winning their regular-season finales.
Since both the Capitals and Panthers were victorious, the Senators dropped into the No. 8 spot and will open against the New York Rangers. The Devils are No. 6 and will open at Florida, which won the Southeast Division title for the first time in franchise history with a 4-1 victory over Carolina.
The Senators won three out of four against the Rangers this season and have won five in a row at Madison Square Garden. Their last loss at the Garden was opening night for the 2009-10 season.
The Devils split their season series with the Panthers, who were coached for the previous three seasons by Pete DeBoer, now the bench boss in New Jersey.
"When we played them the first time there was some emotion involved. That's human nature," DeBoer said of returning to play the Panthers in the playoffs. "We've played them four times during the season, we've gone 82 games, and three quarters of that team is different than I had there. They really are another team for me now. I'll have a few more friends in the crowd in Florida from my time there, but other than that no special meaning."
Prior the matchups being said, players in both dressing rooms were saying it didn't matter one way or another to them who they played.
"The mindset is that we're starting fresh. It's 0-0 moving forward. The second season starts now," Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson told NHL.com after making 31 saves. "Whatever happens during the season, I've seen on many occasions the complete opposite happens in the playoffs."
"For us, we like how we're playing," added Parise. "We're comfortable and we know we're going to watch a lot of video over the next two or three days to really be prepared."
Odds are the Senators didn't get to watch much video on Devils forward Stephen Gionta, whose first NHL goal just happened to be the game-winner with 9:05 left in regulation Saturday.
Gionta, the brother of Montreal captain and former Devil Brian Gionta, drove the net and cashed in on a rebound that Anderson left in the slot.
"Any chance you get to play at this level it's an honor. To be able to help out the team, it's even better," Gionta told NHL.com. "The first one is a dream come true, and it's an added bonus that it helped the team get the two points."
Gionta was awarded the First Star of the Game. He is in his sixth season in the Devils organization but he has spent most of that time in the American Hockey League. He's actually the all-time leader in games played (360) for the Devils' AHL affiliate in Albany.
He played Saturday only because David Clarkson (lower-body injury) was being held out as a precautionary measure. Clarkson will be available for Game 1 of the playoffs, but DeBoer said there's a chance Gionta is on the postseason roster because of the injury to Jacob Josefson, who is out four to six weeks with a fractured left wrist.
"He's a little guy with a big heart like his brother," DeBoer said. "He got it going to the net, which is what we've been preaching for a long time."
The Devils used power-play goals and a strong effort from Martin Brodeur (31 saves) to come back from a pair of one-goal deficits.
Ilya Kovalchuk tied the game at 1-1 late in the first period with a laser from the right circle and Petr Sykora cashed in with a slam-dunk goal from the left post off a 5-on-1 rush late in the second.
Kovalchuk, who added an empty-net goal with 43 seconds left, started the 5-on-1 rush when his pass out of the corner to Marek Zidlicky pinned three Senators players deep in their attacking zone. Zidlicky broke out, Kovalchuk sprinted up to join the rush, and the Devils had a 5-on-1 along with Dainius Zubrus, Adam Henrique and Sykora.
Without specifically referencing that goal, Ottawa coach Paul MacLean was infuriated over the way his team's work ethic and structure. He said the problem wasn't a one-game thing either.
"Work would be the first thing we could do. If we do that it'll make a significant impact in the outcome of the games," MacLean said. "We need to be more mentally focused and sharper. We can't be giving away goals and expecting to keep up. We have to get a little better work ethic, a little better focus and rely on the structure of our team to have success."
What about that structure?
"I don't think we had any in the last three games, really," MacLean said. "We lacked work ethic, structure, and focus in the last three games. Hopefully that's over. The (regular) season is over and we can get back to being a hard working team that plays with speed, plays 200-feet, and is hard to play against."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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